No matter how well Wei Wuxian thought he could hide away his things, Jiang Cheng was always better at finding them, in the way that younger brothers always were. Even when they had been young men trying to hide wine, or illustrated books, or any manner of forbidden items from each other, Jiang Cheng could always discover Wei Wuxian’s caches.
The small child Wei Wuxian tried to conceal was no different. Jiang Cheng took a moment to curse him for never improving his hiding places, as he swept the child up amidst the confusion. Disciples from all sects were still swarming around, cleaning up from the slaughter and poking through the assorted small possessions the Wen remnants had managed to acquire, and Jiang Cheng deemed it time to depart with all speed, Wei Wuxian’s dizi already concealed in his sleeve. He wouldn’t be expected to stay anyway, not now that his brother was --
The child was silent all the way to Yunmeng, a warm weight against Jiang Cheng’s side as he balanced them on his sword. Too warm, he decided after they landed, and he went straight to the doctor who had tended his family when they were all children.
“Is he ill?” he asked, shortly, handing over the boy.
To his credit, the doctor blinked for only a moment before receiving the child. He peered at him, touching his cheek, his forehead, and circling his wrists to check his meridians. “Resentment poisoning, which will fade over time. There's a fever, and he’s underweight, but he seems hearty enough otherwise, Jiang-zongzhu. A few hours more wherever he was and he'd be worse off.” The man hesitated. “May I ask --”
“You may not,” Jiang Cheng said, and he subsided.
True to the doctor’s word, the boy recovered quickly. The fever passed after only a night, and though he refused to speak, the next morning he ate like -- like a wild thing, Jiang Cheng thought, savagely suppressing memories of another young boy eating soup like he’d never seen food.
There were a few young disciples at Lotus Pier without parents, now, and most had come without much notice or fanfare. Nobody in Yunmeng was going to question him about the new shadow he’d acquired. It would have been more discreet, Jiang Cheng allowed, if he had found a nursemaid to tend the boy, but he was happy to keep him nearby, even if he wasn’t willing to think about why. The boy was hardly a burden to him, sitting quietly by his desk and playing with the tails of the kites and moving around rocks on the floor.
He wished he had reconsidered when the Second Jade of Lan appeared, scarcely two days later, looking next door to death.
“Lan-er-gongzi,” he said from between his teeth. “What.” He considered the man in front of him -- he looked like he might keel over with a strong breeze. Then again, he knew first-hand about discipline at the Cloud Recesses and he was surprised, in a distant and unpleasant way, that he had strength enough to stand there before him.
He was not the only person in the room to observe their visitor.
“Rich-gege!” The boy said from next to his desk, the first words Jiang Cheng heard him say, and ran to attach himself to Lan Wangji’s white-clad leg. Jiang Cheng saw him sway, as though he would fall from that slight impact, and he sat back, watching narrow-eyed to be sure that he wouldn’t fall on the child.
“A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji said, his face blank as always but a world of emotion in his voice. “I am surprised to see you here.” The boy buried his face in Lan Wangji’s robes and began to cry. Lan Wangji put one hand down on top of his head but otherwise did nothing else to comfort the boy.
He didn’t feel particularly inclined to make the man more comfortable in this moment. Was he here to steal even this from him? Bad enough that the Jin clan had jiejie’s son.
“When you’re done tormenting my disciple, state your business,” Jiang Cheng said. “And then you can go.” to hell, he hoped, was understood.
“Your disciple?” Lan Wangji repeated, nearly showing an expression.
“My disciple,” Jiang Cheng said, trying -- not very hard -- to keep his voice level. “Wei Yuan.”
The crying child attached to Lan Wangji’s skirts didn’t seem to notice his abrupt re-naming but Lan Wangji took a small step backward with his free leg as though he had received a physical blow. “This child is a disciple of GusuLan,” he said. “It’s what his family would have preferred.”
Family, what did Lan Wangji know about Jiang Cheng’s family? How dare he, Jiang Cheng thought. “His family is dead,” he said baldly.
Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow. “At whose hands?”
A wash of mingled shame and rage -- very familiar emotions to Jiang Cheng, but never easy to bear -- clouded his vision. “You may leave at any time, Lan-er-gongzi,” he bit out. “The boy will be safer here than any remote mountain he could be hidden on, and at least here he’ll eat well and become healthy and not poisoned by resentment.” He took a deep breath and clenched his teeth. “Besides, you’re in no shape to do anything for a child, you’re about to fall over where you stand.”
“I will take this child with me back to the Cloud Recesses,” Lan Wangji said, his voice even.
Jiang Cheng couldn’t have stopped Zidian from flashing even if he had been inclined to do so. He didn’t allow it to strike Lan Wangji where he stood -- he was still being clutched by a child whose cries echoed in the room -- but the purple flash made his feelings on this proposal fully evident, he hoped. “You will return to the Cloud Recesses alone,” Jiang Cheng said. “If you wish to see the child again, you will not test my patience.”
“Patience?” Lan Wangji said, his tone skeptical.
Jiang Cheng breathed out through his nose, hard. Rather than reply -- had he ever felt as though he had won an argument against this carved piece of jade? -- he went and gently pried the boy off Lan Wangji’s leg. His cries had become tired, his sobs coming more weakly, and Jiang Cheng was reminded that he was still recovering from illness and weak from his long sojourn at the Burial Grounds. He hoisted him up to his shoulder and patted his back like he had seen jiejie do for the baby, and it seemed to comfort Wei Yuan, who sighed and melted against him.
“That’s right,” he said softly. “Shushu will keep you safe.” He turned and left the room. Lan Wangji could rot there as far as he was concerned.
He must have gone, as none of his household staff alerted him that an obstinate block of ice was cluttering up his main hall. Jiang Cheng had more to be concerned with, namely the small child he had inherited. The child slept well, and ate well, and amused himself well, and Jiang Cheng was, overall, pleased with his own parenting skills. There was one place, though, where he didn’t feel quite up to the task. Wei Yuan had started to ask him, every day, where his Rich-gege had gone.
Jiang Cheng was tempted to tell him that Lan Wangji had met some horrible end, just to make the questions stop, but Wei Yuan never asked about any other family member, never mentioned his Xian-gege or any of the Wens, and Jiang Cheng had a sinking feeling that the boy had seen more from his hiding place than a child should.
“Do you want to go meet a baby?” he asked Wei Yuan one morning at breakfast. “My sister had a young son, and I think we should go to see him.”
Wei Yuan lit up. “Shushu, yes, a baby!” He cradled his arms as if rocking one to sleep, then darted a look at Jiang Cheng. “A-Yuan holds the baby?” he asked, his voice wheedling.
“We’ll see,” said Jiang Cheng. “Eat your breakfast and don’t play around.”
Wei Yuan rededicated himself to his congee, sending looks to Jiang Cheng that seemed to be saying: look, I’m good, I’m so good, look how good I can be. His sweetly sly little sideways glances sparked a memory in Jiang Cheng of Wei Wuxian giving their father that same entreating look the morning after they’d gotten in trouble for some bit of mischief, and how mad he’d been when it worked.
It was Jiang Cheng who couldn’t eat, after that.
After the meal had ended, he gathered a small group of disciples to accompany them on a trip to Koi Tower. Jin Guangshan would consider it an insult to arrive unannounced, of course, but it would be even worse if he arrived unaccompanied. Jiang Cheng wished to knock them off their guard with an impromptu visit, but it wouldn’t serve his purposes to antagonize them fully.
It was a relatively short trip by sword, and Wei Yuan held himself carefully still in front of Jiang Cheng. Once or twice, he turned his head or pointed at some object of interest, but no mischief worse than that.
“Good boy,” he said gruffly as they stepped down, and Wei Yuan glowed. “You can stay with me if you can be quiet and listen very carefully. Can you do that?”
Wei Yuan pressed his lips together tightly and nodded, eyes big. Jiang Cheng nodded at him, then turned toward the front doors of Koi Tower. Wei Yuan and the other Jiang disciples followed him.
They were greeted at the door by Jin Guangyao, who bowed with a soft, cautious smile. “Jiang-zongzhu, we were not expecting you,” he said. “Shall I have rooms prepared for you?”
“Might as well,” Jiang Cheng said. “How is my nephew?”
“He is fine,” said Jin Guangyao. “Perhaps a bit more fretful at times than in earlier weeks.”
Jiang Cheng did not want to stand and discuss with Jin Guangyao what reasons their mutual nephew might have for crying more than he had before. He moved further into the entryway. “I wish to see him. Can you have him brought, or shall we seek out the nursery?”
“Oh, I’ll have him brought to you,” said Jin Guangyao quickly. “Please, come and sit.”
Jiang Cheng and his men, along with Wei Yuan, settled into a small sitting room. Jiang Cheng let his eyes roam over the room and its furnishings. It was a lavish room, practically shouting that its owners were wealthy, decorated in gold as all of Koi Tower was, filled with accents and ornaments. It was, Jiang Cheng thought, one of the ugliest rooms he’d ever seen. A child, living in a house like this, unable to run or play without fear of breaking some priceless artifact? That was no way to raise children, he thought comfortably, his few weeks of surrogate parenting behind him as experience.
When Jin Ling drew near, his entrance was preceded by some moments by his wailing. The nursemaid bearing him wore a resigned expression and she was gently patting him as she walked, and it seemed as though she had no expectation that he would stop crying any time soon.
Jiang Cheng reached out and took Jin Ling from her at once. When Jin Ling had been born, he had been frightened to hold him; jiejie had had to trick him into taking him the first time. He had just seemed so small.
He seemed scarcely bigger now, these few months later. He was red from crying, and his cheeks were plumper, but he seemed fragile in his arms. “Does he eat well?” he asked the nursemaid.
She hesitated. “The wet nurse does her best,” she said. “He’s a fussy lad. Sometimes he doesn’t want to stop crying so he can eat.”
It certainly seemed as though he would never stop crying. Jiang Cheng bounced slightly, like jiejie had shown him, and it had no effect. Suddenly he remembered his promise. “A-Yuan,” he said, turning to find him. “Come meet the baby.”
Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure if the crying would scare off Wei Yuan, but he seemed unphased as he darted over. “Hi baby,” he said, stretching up on tiptoe to peer at Jin Ling’s face where Jiang Cheng held him.
“Here,” said Jiang Cheng, kneeling down so Wei Yuan could see. “He’s Jin Ling, my sister’s baby. Your aunt's son.”
Wei Yuan seemed entranced, and he stared at Jin Ling’s red face. He gently reached out to touch one little cheek with a single finger, and it seemed to startle Jin Ling, who turned to look at him, and his cries petered out.
The nursemaid looked startled, and she drew a breath as though to exclaim, but the words died on her lips as Jiang Cheng looked up sharply at her. He jerked his head at the door, and she obediently stepped outside, quick as a wink.
Wei Yuan looked at Jin Ling for far longer than Jiang Cheng could have guessed his attention would last. Jin Ling captured his finger in one dimpled fist, and brought it to his mouth to gently gnaw on, and still Wei Yuan stared.
“Shushu,” he said finally. “The baby comes home with us?”
“He’d better,” said Jiang Cheng grimly.
Wei Yuan nodded and continued looking at Jin Ling. Jiang Cheng was willing to kneel there and hold him until his arms fell off, especially now that the wailing had stopped.
Jin Ling had fallen asleep by the time the nursemaid returned, this time accompanied by Madam Jin.
“I hear you’ve worked miracles, Jiang-zongzhu,” she said. Her bright eyes took in the scene immediately, Jiang Cheng could see -- Jin Ling asleep, Wei Yuan standing nearby, gently petting his soft baby head, Jiang Cheng kneeling down. His embarrassment at being seen in such a tableau was hot, but he wasn’t willing to risk sudden movements. He slowly rose.
“Jin-furen,” he said, bowing as much as the child in his arms permitted. “It is good to see my nephew. I hope he has been well.”
“He’s been fine,” she said sharply. “Babies cry, it’s very common.”
“So much that they can’t eat?” he asked, and she glared.
“Who’s this?” she asked, looking at Wei Yuan. “He seems to be quite the young charmer, putting our little menace to sleep like this.”
“He is Wei Yuan,” said Jiang Cheng, and her eyebrows flew up nearly to her hairline.
“Indeed?” she asked. “Well, well.” She clucked her tongue. “That’s a shame.”
“He’s a very promising boy,” Jiang Cheng said. “We cannot always help who our fathers are, can we?”
Madam Jin closed her mouth with a snap and her sizzling glare reminded Jiang Cheng of his own mother. He ducked his head. “We just came to see Jin Ling,” he said again. It was as close to an apology as she would get from him.
“He’s fine,” she said again. “Was your unexpected visit only for this?”
“And to experience the fine Jin hospitality that is so prized,” said Jiang Cheng, trying as hard as he could to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
“Come then,” she said. “Bring A-Ling, bring all your disciples. I’ll have the kitchens prepare food spicy enough that you Yunmeng boys can enjoy it.” She turned and left, not looking back to make sure they followed; they followed. Wei Yuan kept one hand gently clasped around Jin Ling’s foot where it emerged from the blankets as they went.
Dinner was as awkward as Jiang Cheng could have predicted. Madam Jin had snapped at Jin Guangyao three times before they had all sat down, and as they were seating themselves, she hissed at him once more, and tilted her head. Jiang Cheng watched him sigh and step down, further away from the head table to an even lesser place.
“It is such an unexpected treat to see you, my boy,” said Jin Guangshan, drawing Jiang Cheng’s eyes away from that little drama. His words were layered with meaning, as they always were, but Jiang Cheng chose to take them at face value, refusing to be needled on the first exchange.
“It is always an honor to be at Koi Tower,” he said coolly. “I am happy to see my nephew. I had hoped that he would be well.” He hoped the insult was veiled enough to pass, and he saw Madam Jin narrow her eyes, but Jin Guangshan seemed unruffled.
“Of course, of course, the boy is doing fine, seems like a perfectly normal baby to me. The Jin sect can be proud of its heir.”
“He’s the heir to the Jiang sect as well,” Jiang Cheng said.
“Ah,” said Jin Guangshan, sounding startled in a very fake way. “Not this lad here?” He indicated Wei Yuan. “A likely-looking young fellow, and I hear he’s nearly family?”
Jiang Cheng smiled, just as falsely. “I could say the same thing,” he said, waving a hand in the direction of Jin Guangyao. The air between them froze with tension, Madam Jin’s face full of anger, and then Jin Guangshan laughed so hard he pounded on the table a little.
“My boy, my boy,” he said, as his laughter trailed away. Neither Madam Jin nor Jin Guangyao were laughing in the slightest. “Always so quick-witted. Yes, I see what you mean, Jin Ling is our little shared hope, is he not?”
“I hope he will grow to be as proud of Lotus Pier as he is of Koi Tower,” said Jiang Cheng.
“No doubt he will,” said Jin Guangshan carelessly. “I’m sure that once he’s older and can visit, he will like it there too.”
“How can a person visit a place that is their home?” asked Jiang Cheng. “Even the smallest of children can travel, and Lotus Pier misses its heir.”
Madam Jin leaned forward. “Do you mean to take Jin Ling back with you to Lotus Pier?”
“Lotus Pier should know his voice as well as Koi Tower does,” Jiang Cheng said. “Why should he not go there?” He looked at Jin Guangshan and forced some levity into his tone. “Besides, I hear he’s a very loud child, wouldn’t you like a break from the crying?”
Jin Guangshan laughed again. “You have a point! Yes, yes, he should visit with you. Perhaps a nice month, enough for a good look around before he returns home?”
“Six months of each year,” said Jiang Cheng. “His claim to Lotus Pier is equal to Koi Tower.”
“When a daughter marries, she leaves her family,” said Jin Guangshan. “Jin Ling is first a Jin.”
“Koi Tower is rich in disciples,” said Jiang Cheng. “Lanling boasts many of the Jin clan. The Jiang clan must hold onto those that they have. Our losses in the war were many, and Jin Ling is our heir. Six months of each year, though I could ask for more.”
Jin Guangyao leaned forward slightly, the movement in the corner of Jiang Cheng’s eye catching his attention. Jin Guangshan looked at him narrowly for a long moment.
“Fine, fine,” said Jin Guangshan, the cheerful bonhomie drained from his voice, leaving it sour. “If you want children around your skirts like ducklings, take the boy for a spell. I’m sure you’ll be tired of playing mother before too long, and we’ll be happy to take him when you’re finished with the game.”
Jiang Cheng closed his mouth around his immediate retort and nodded. It was a victory, and he would take it as such. “Thank you,” he said once he had breathed through the first rush of anger at the jabs. “We will depart in the morning, and return him before the new year begins.”
The rest of the meal was tense but civil and Jiang Cheng was glad to escape the hall, leading Wei Yuan and the rest of his disciples to the guest wing they had been assigned. Jin Ling would remain in the nursery until the morning.
Breakfast at Koi Tower was always a quiet affair, while the inhabitants slept off the wine from their lavish dinners, and Jiang Cheng was not expecting to see any of the family at the early hour he had designated for himself and his disciples to eat before their departure. He was surprised when Jin Guangyao sat next to him and smiled gently at Wei Yuan on his other side.
“Good morning, Jiang-zongzhu,” he said. Jiang Cheng only raised his eyebrows in response and after a moment he went on. “Lan Xichen-ge sent a message for you this morning, and I wished to pass it on.”
“He sent a message for me...to Koi Tower?” Jiang Cheng asked. “How interesting that he knew that I was here.”
Jin Guangyao ducked his head. “We exchange messages often,” he said, his voice soft and a little proud. We gossip like old ladies, Jiang Cheng translated mentally. “He has asked me to express his sincere desire for a visit from Jiang-zongzhu if it is convenient for you.”
“What could be more convenient than traveling to Gusu with an infant?” Jiang Cheng said, laying the irony on thickly. “Certainly, we must see Lan-zongzhu without delay.”
“Wonderful, I’ll tell him to expect you,” said Jin Guangyao cheerfully, popping up from the table with alacrity. He was gone before Jiang Cheng could protest and he turned with a frown back to his meal. It seemed that they were now going to Gusu, and he had an overland journey to plan.
On the way out of Lanling, Jiang Cheng rented a cart for the children and the Jin clan nursemaid, and the disciples took turns riding in with them. The rest of them traveled on donkeys, surrounding the cart.
Wei Yuan was worth his weight in gold on the trip -- he was already deeply in love with Jin Ling, and spent all his time trying to get him to smile or laugh. After half a day, the disciples were fighting each other for their turn in the cart to play with the little ones, and Jiang Cheng heard laughter nearly every minute.
For some reason, it left his throat tight with unshed tears, and that annoyed him, and he kicked his donkey’s sides and rode ahead. Better to scout for trouble anyway.
He sent a disciple ahead of them to Cloud Recesses when they arrived in Caiyi. The rest of them stopped to eat before heading up the mountain. Something Jiang Cheng had learned very quickly was that little children ate nearly constantly, and trying to make them wait for their meal was a recipe for disaster.
Besides, he remembered the food at the Cloud Recesses.
When they arrived at the gate, Lan Xichen was there waiting for them. He saluted, and Jiang Cheng returned the gesture. “I received your message from Jin Guangyao,” Lan Xichen said. “Many thanks for altering your plans, I am glad that you came.” He turned to Wei Yuan, at Jiang Cheng’s side. “My brother will be happy to see you, Young Master Wei,” he added, his smile friendly.
Wei Yuan, sleepy and full from the meal and the long walk, the cart having been left at the foot of the mountain, smiled and shyly turned his face into Jiang Cheng's arm. Jiang Cheng shook him off. “Wake up,” he said, “when your elder says something nice to you, what do you do?”
Wei Yuan made a crooked salute in imitation of Jiang Cheng's own, and he said, “thank you, gege,” and Jiang Cheng saw Lan Xichen hide a small smile behind a sleeve.
“Lan-zongzhu,” Jiang Cheng said. “Not gege.” But he took hold of Wei Yuan's shoulder and squeezed it gently, fondly.
“Who is your brother?” Wei Yuan asked.
“You know him well,” assured Lan Xichen. “I believe you call him Rich-gege?”
“We’re visiting Rich-gege?” Wei Yuan’s eyes were wide. “Shushu, thank you!” He wrapped his arms around Jiang Cheng’s leg and buried his face in his robe.
“Well, let us go, then,” said Lan Xichen merrily. He led the way up the stone steps, as they headed into the very clouds. After twenty steps, Jiang Cheng found that he was carrying Wei Yuan, without having made a conscious decision to pick him up, but the child closed his arms around Jiang Cheng's neck and laid his head against his shoulder, and Jiang Cheng just hoped the stairs stayed perfectly even beneath the feet that he could no longer see.
When they arrived, finally, Jiang Cheng considered adding “carry a sleeping child up hundreds of steps” as a new training exercise, as his arms were as tired as they'd ever been.
He could see that the nursemaid was tired too, Jin Ling growing heavier in sleep, and he cocked his head at a disciple until the man realized what he wanted, leaping forward to gingerly take the sleeping baby and let the poor woman shake out her arms. Another disciple stepped forward, his hands reaching out for Wei Yuan, and Jiang Cheng recoiled, drawing the child further in toward himself protectively before he recalled himself and relaxed, shaking his head at the offered help.
“Let me show you to the guest quarters,” Lan Xichen said. “You can refresh yourselves before greeting anyone officially. I hope you will be staying long enough to rest well?”
“How long will you require our presence?” asked Jiang Cheng sharply. “We’ll stay if we’re needed, but I had planned only a short trip.”
“Ah, we’ll see how long our business takes,” said Lan Xichen, who never seemed to take a single thing personally, which was utterly baffling to Jiang Cheng. “This way.”
He led them to the nicest guest houses Jiang Cheng had yet seen at Cloud Recesses. “Are these new?” he asked. “Since the fire?”
Lan Xichen winced at the reminder. “Yes,” he said. “Nearly everything had to be rebuilt. Most things we tried to recreate faithfully, but there were a few places with room for improvement, as I’m sure you’ve found in your own rebuilding process.” He slid the doors open, gesturing for Jiang Cheng to precede him inside. The disciples with him, and the nursemaid, he waved to the next door, but Jiang Cheng caught the eye of the disciple carrying Jin Ling, and he veered from the group to join Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen.
Jiang Cheng considered that. “We didn’t make things the same, mostly,” he said, walking inside and easing the still-sleeping Wei Yuan onto the first couch he saw. “It would never be the same, so why try? But then, Lotus Pier wasn’t as continuously old as the Cloud Recesses -- we’ve lost buildings to flooding and had to begin again before.” Arms now free, he took Jin Ling from the disciple and quietly dismissed him to join his fellows.
Lan Xichen nodded as though he had made a profound point, but changed the subject entirely. “Will you rest and return to the main pavilion when you are ready?” he asked. “Lan Qiren would be happy to greet you, along with me.”
“And Lan-er-gongzi?” Jiang Cheng asked, quick to catch the omission. “Is he away?”
“My brother is…” Lan Xichen seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “He is recovering. Even with strong cultivation, some injuries are difficult to heal.”
Jiang Cheng suppressed a huff of disdain, hiding it against Jin Ling’s sleepy head on his shoulder. “I hope we will not be disturbing him, then.”
“He will welcome it,” Lan Xichen said, serene. “He did much damage by flying away to look for this little one, and for signs of Wei Wuxian.”
Jiang Cheng felt a muscle in his jaw jump as he clenched it so hard he heard his back teeth grind. “He needn’t have,” he managed to say. “There were none.”
“Sometimes a person has to see for themselves,” Lan Xichen said, still calm. “Will you join us at shēn hour, once the children have rested and you and your disciples refreshed yourselves? We will have tea and then the children can visit Lan Wangji.”
“That’s fine,” Jiang Cheng agreed, and started looking for a soft place to lay Jin Ling.
Lan Xichen saluted and left him to it.
Tea with Lan Qiren was no more enjoyable as a sect leader than it had been as a disciple attending lectures. Despite being a grown man, the head of his family, and a sect leader, discussing important intersect matters, Jiang Cheng still couldn’t shake the sense that he was being viewed with the same general tolerance as the little boy sitting with great solemnity at his side.
Despite the near-summons, there was no business brought up initially that could have been urgent enough to require a personal visit, and Jiang Cheng’s suspicions that they had been called there only to allow Lan Wangji to see Wei Yuan were borne out, as the meeting ended and Lan Xichen came forward with a smile.
“Let us call upon Wangji,” he said. “He is spending much of his time in meditative seclusion, but I am sure he will be more than happy to see Wei Yuan so well.”
How can you tell? was Jiang Cheng’s first sour thought, but he held it behind his teeth. He just jerked his head in a nod and took Wei Yuan’s hand in his. He nodded at the disciple holding Jin Ling, who came to follow them.
At that, Lan Xichen paused. “My brother is not taking many visitors at this time,” he said. “Perhaps I can walk there with Wei Yuan, and you can return to your quarters with the baby?”
Jiang Cheng stopped. “Or we could leave right now,” he said. “We’re still packed up, there’s light enough to get to Caiyi and find space at an inn, and it seems that our sect business is concluded.”
He had dented Lan Xichen’s calm, whose smile now looked pained. “Perhaps Young Master Jin and his retinue could return and rest, and you could accompany our young friend alone?”
Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth, then turned to take Jin Ling from the disciple, who was looking like he wanted to melt into the ground. “Go,” he said, and the boy fled at just below a run. He adjusted Jin Ling along his side so that he could hold him with a single arm, his scabbard held in the same hand so he could still draw his sword, then took Wei Yuan’s hand again. “Well?” he said, and Lan Xichen smiled at him, good humor apparently restored at this concession.
Lan Xichen led them to a small house, set back from the main part of the grounds. He tapped lightly on the doorframe but didn’t pause for a response, sliding the doors open for them himself. He allowed them to enter, but declined to come in himself, closing the door behind them.
Lan Wangji was waiting for them in the middle of the main room, sitting upright. The room was nice, decorated modestly but comfortably. He looked terrible, though -- perhaps worse than he had when he had come looking for Wei Yuan. Thinner, if Jiang Cheng was any judge, and he hadn’t been sleeping. He looked much as he had during the worst of the war, or when they had been searching together for --
“Rich-gege!” Wei Yuan exclaimed, and flung himself into Lan Wangji’s lap. Lan Wangji’s exhalation of pain, quickly cut-off, nonetheless caused the child to look up at him. “Rich-gege is hurt,” he said, putting one little hand on Lan Wangji’s face.
“I am happy to see you, A-Yuan,” Lan Wangji said. “Yes, I am hurt.”
After a moment of indecision, Jiang Cheng sat off to the side with Jin Ling, allowing Lan Wangji to speak with Wei Yuan while Jiang Cheng amused Jin Ling by letting him chew messily on Sandu’s hilt. He was not going to permit another suggestion that he should leave -- he trusted Lan Wangji about as far as he could throw him, and he wasn’t about to take his eyes or ears off either of these children while he was at the Cloud Recesses.
Permitting a visit, however contrived, was one thing, but Jiang Cheng hadn’t forgotten Lan Wangji’s insistence that he would take Wei Yuan away.
Meanwhile, Wei Yuan was chattering about the trip, about Caiyi Town, about Jin Ling. His baby lisp meant that the flow of thoughts were only intermittently intelligible -- enough to determine the topic and enthusiasm, if not the actual content. Nonetheless, Lan Wangji nodded along as though it were the most engrossing tale he’d ever been told.
“Where is Xian-gege?” Wei Yuan suddenly asked, the question clear as a bell. It was the first time Jiang Cheng could remember him asking after Wei Wuxian, since the first time Jiang Cheng discovered him in the tree stump in the Burial Mounds. “Rich-gege, where is he?”
Lan Wangji bent forward slightly and rested his forehead against the child’s head. “He’s gone,” he said.
Wei Yuan sniffled. “I miss him,” he said, and Jiang Cheng wanted to scream, or cry, or throw all of Lan Wangji’s perfect, beautiful, stupid ornaments against the walls.
When Lan Wangji replied, a long moment later, it was almost too low for Jiang Cheng to hear. “I miss him too,” he said. They all sat in silence. Jiang Cheng suddenly, desperately, wanted his sister. Jiejie would have known what to say or do, he was sure, but she wasn’t here and she’d never be here again to tell him what to do.
After a long moment, Wei Yuan jumped up and off Lan Wangji’s lap, and ran to a low shelf. “Butterflies,” he said. “My butterflies, rich-gege, you found them.” He snatched the little grass toys and held them up. He ran to Jiang Cheng. “Look, A-Ling, butterflies! Shushu, butterflies!” He twirled the toy in front of Jin Ling, who watched Wei Yuan with wide-eyed devotion. He returned to Lan Wangji, who this time guided him to sit next to him rather than dropping directly into his lap.
“I found them when I went to look for you,” Lan Wangji said. “I thought you might want them back.”
“I do, gege, I do,” Wei Yuan vowed, and started talking directly to the little toys. He had missed them and hoped they had been well, Jiang Cheng gathered.
“Will you stay long?” Lan Wangji said, and it took a moment for Jiang Cheng to realize that he was being addressed, because Lan Wangji was definitely not looking at him.
“We do not currently have any pressing business,” he said. “You know how that can change in a moment, but as of now we can remain.”
“I still wish for him to become a disciple here,” Lan Wangji said, and Jiang Cheng felt his body lock up with rage.
“Pressing business has just come up,” he said, hearing his voice shake slightly, not quite able to keep it under control. “We shall depart for Lotus Pier in the morning.” He watched Lan Wangji press his lips together until they turned white, his hands clenching in his lap.
Wei Yuan's head shot up. “Shushu, no,” he said, pleading, with his big eyes fixed on Jiang Cheng.
“That’s up to your gege,” Jiang Cheng said, glaring at Lan Wangji.
“Please remain,” Lan Wangji said to the air next to Jiang Cheng’s left ear. “I apologize.”
Jiang Cheng nodded, his eyes still locked on Lan Wangji in suspicion.
“While you are here I can show you the rabbits,” Lan Wangji told Wei Yuan. “We will wake early in the morning and go to feed them.” Wei Yuan looked rapturous, clutching his newly rediscovered toys and leaning hard into Lan Wangji’s side.
Jin Ling chose that time to start making grumpy sounding noises that Jiang Cheng knew, even with his short experience with babies, would very quickly escalate to highly unpleasant ones.
“It’s dinnertime,” said Lan Wangji. He indicated a side table, where some covered dishes stood, the corners of warming talismans showing beneath them. “Will you eat?”
Jiang Cheng nodded and rose. He started to set Jin Ling down on the floor, then hesitated. “Here,” he said, and handed him to Lan Wangji who received him with only a slight tightening of his expression that Jiang Cheng couldn't begin to decipher. Pain, perhaps, or anger. “If I set him down now, he’ll scream. A-Yuan, get up, lazy, you need to help. It's your filial duty to serve your elders.”
Wei Yuan beamed and set down his toys at once as he popped to his feet. “Yes, shushu! A-Yuan will help!”
The meal passed in silence, in the Lan way. Jiang Cheng tried not to wince at the bland sweetness of each dish, but Wei Yuan seemed to enjoy the meal well enough. Before the meal had ended, he could see that Lan Wangji was drooping with tiredness, and so were the children. It seemed that the strict Lan bedtime would be observed in full, and so Jiang Cheng removed himself, Wei Yuan, and Jin Ling before they had the unpleasant opportunity to see Lan Wangji actually lose composure and nod off in front of them.
The morning bell at the Cloud Recesses was abysmally early, as it had always been. Jiang Cheng spent a full minute lying in bed, hating the bell, hating the Lans, hating morning, hating the world, before heaving himself to his feet to prepare for the day ahead. On the pallet across the room, Wei Yuan was staring at him, trembling with excitement already.
“Well, get up, what are you waiting for,” said Jiang Cheng. He tossed a clean cloth at him. “Wash your face, you’re disgraceful.”
Wei Yuan laughed and obeyed.
When they arrived at Lan Wangji’s house, he was sitting on the porch, straight-backed as usual, waiting for them. Wei Yuan carried the basket of green vegetables he had been handed and chattered without requiring much of a response as they slowly walked from the jingshi to a stretch of the back hill where Jiang Cheng had often found --
Anyway, he recognized it. Lan Wangji sat, and beckoned for Wei Yuan to do the same. Jiang Cheng sat with Jin Ling, a little apart, but Jin Ling fussed and reached for Wei Yuan, his favorite person in all the world, and Jiang Cheng relented and moved closer to avoid the screaming he knew would come quickly after.
Lan Wangji greeted Jin Ling solemnly and said, “You must both remain very still and quiet for the bunnies to come to you.” He reached into a nearby bush and pulled a small white rabbit, holding it close and petting it carefully. “Do you see how I hold it, and how to gently touch?”
Wei Yuan eagerly nodded, and reached his hand out yearningly toward the rabbit Lan Wangji held. At his side, Jin Ling imitated him, little fingers grabbing.
“Your cousin is too little to be gentle on his own,” Lan Wangji said. “But you can sit quietly and help him.” He deposited the rabbit on Wei Yuan’s lap, and the boy looked like he had been delivered the moon. He patted the bunny then looked over at Jiang Cheng with big eyes.
“Shushu, a bunny! I have a bunny!” he said rapturously. He took Jin Ling’s pudgy hand carefully and guided it into a soft patting motion, and they giggled together. Jiang Cheng had a sudden vision of Lotus Pier overflowing with small creatures, smuggled home in pockets or sleeves, and decided to check the luggage very carefully before leaving the Cloud Recesses.
The children looked as though they could contentedly care for the rabbit for hours, and the rabbit didn’t seem inclined to move, though whether it was happy or terrified, Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure.
Lan Wangji kept his eyes on the children and animals, but addressed Jiang Cheng quietly. “It is good that you are able to have Jin Ling with you.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t look at him. “It’s only right that he should know his mother’s sect as well as his father’s,” he said.
“He looks very like her,” Lan Wangji observed quietly. Jiang Cheng had nothing that he could -- or would -- reply to that. Lan Wangji let some time pass, then quietly said, “If you won’t hear of A-Yuan coming to Cloud Recesses, would you accept me as a disciple to the Jiang sect?”
Jiang Cheng, very visibly and obviously, recoiled. “What, no,” he said before he thought. “What?” Lan Wangji at Lotus Pier? He couldn’t imagine it.
“Jiang-zongzhu. Please.” Lan Wangji’s voice was calm but there was an undertone that Jiang Cheng refused to categorize. “What do I need to do? What can I do? He's all that’s left of Wei Ying.”
“Shut up!” Jiang Cheng said, and shot to his feet. “Shut up, don’t say that.” The children looked up in alarm, and the rabbit saw its chance and took it, flinging itself out of Wei Yuan’s lap. Jin Ling started to cry and Wei Yuan didn’t look far behind. Jiang Cheng took a deep breath, in through the nose, and bounced Jin Ling in an attempt to distract and comfort him.
“You can visit Lotus Pier,” Jiang Cheng said finally. He had teased Jin Ling back into cheerfulness and now he set him down on the grass, and Jin Ling reached over to Wei Yuan, who was still sitting quietly and looking longingly at the bushes for another bunny. Jiang Cheng looked at Lan Wangji, who was still watching the children. “Don’t do anything like renounce your sect. But you can visit.”
Lan Wangji didn’t speak in response, but he dipped his head in acknowledgement, and after a moment, he reached out to retrieve another bunny to hand to Wei Yuan, and his shoulders rounded slightly, his perfect posture relaxing a single notch.
When the sun was higher in the sky and it seemed to be time to return, Wei Yuan sprang up. Lan Wangji tried to rise, and failed, his typical grace deserting him, and his descent catching Jiang Cheng’s eye. Lan Wangji clenched a fist in the grass, and Jiang Cheng turned his head away before he could be caught staring. After a moment, Wei Yuan went to Lan Wangji.
“A-Yuan will help, gege,” he said sweetly. He tugged at Lan Wangji’s sleeve with no visible effect, and after a moment, Lan Wangji seemed to gather his strength enough to roll to his feet, leaning hard on Wei Yuan’s shoulder. “Shushu, you help too,” Wei Yuan directed.
Jiang Cheng looked at Lan Wangji, alarmed, and though Lan Wangji was looking anywhere else, he nodded slightly. They walked slowly back through the hills, Lan Wangji leaning heavily on him to the distaste of them both but the joy of Wei Yuan. When they arrived at Lan Wangji’s home, Lan Wangji lowered himself to sit on the stoop with obvious relief, and Wei Yuan sat next to him, so close he was nearly on his lap, and gently patted his knee.
Jiang Cheng reached a decision he hadn’t fully known he was contemplating, and forced out the words before he could think better of it. “We’re leaving tomorrow,” he said. Lan Wangji and Wei Yuan looked up with twin faces full of wordless distress. Jiang Cheng sighed inwardly. “We’re traveling by land,” he went on. “We’ll rent another cart in Caiyi. If you’d like to ride with the children, you’d be welcome to visit Lotus Pier while you continue to recover.”
“Brother has let it be known that I am in seclusion,” said Lan Wangji. “However,” he hesitated, looking at Wei Yuan. “If my trip can be a quiet one?”
“Who am I going to tell,” Jiang Cheng scoffed.
The next morning, all went smoothly. Lan Xichen came to see them off, pressing a qiankun bag into Lan Wangji’s hands, and smiling genially at them both. He walked with him down the stairs as far as the gate. Jiang Cheng could see him standing there, watching as they went, until they went past the first curve in the road.
The cart they hired in Caiyi was a smaller one than the one they had hired in Lanling; Jiang Cheng had assumed that since Lan Wangji would be staying with the children, and they didn’t need to rotate through the disciples, that it would be fine.
It was not fine. Lan Wangji was the most stoic piece of carved jade that Jiang Cheng had ever seen, but by the end of each day of travel, he was clearly worn through, and the third morning, Jiang Cheng heard him vomiting, though when he came from his room into the inn’s main room, he looked his usual self.
“We’ll be staying here another day,” he said. “Go back to your room.”
Lan Wangji remained where he was. “I can--”
“You can’t,” Jiang Cheng said. “We’ve travelled together before, I know what you look like when you can’t. Don’t test me. Go.”
At the reference, Lan Wangji’s already pale face went white to the lips and he turned and went upstairs without another word. Jiang Cheng regretted -- nothing. It was fine. The children probably would appreciate a day to run around the little village and play anyway.
While they were idle, Jiang Cheng directed his disciples, the ones who weren’t needed to guard the boys, to walk through the town and talk with the townspeople, ask about strange happenings or rumors of demonic cultivation, just in case. They were getting close to Yunmeng, and he wanted to take advantage of any opportunity for catching wind of trouble before it started. The recent disappearance of the entire TingshanHe clan had been disturbing, and Jiang Cheng was on his guard.
The next morning, Lan Wangji seemed to be more himself. Wei Yuan and Jin Ling seemed to be in good spirits as well, and Jiang Cheng had received no reports of any strange or suspicious goings-on from his disciples. It was a good day for travel, and they were on their way once more.
They arrived at Lotus Pier a day and a half later, and Jiang Cheng had never been happier to be home. He walked Lan Wangji to his rooms, a guest suite not far from where the boys slept, and gave only enough of a tour on the way to point out the doctor’s room and the kitchens. The pain lines had returned to Lan Wangji’s face, and they left him to rest. Wei Yuan, who had insisted on accompanying them, gave him a hug around the legs that nearly pushed him over, before Jiang Cheng peeled him away.
Over the next two weeks, they saw only enough of Lan Wangji to be sure that he was eating regularly, and Wei Yuan made his displeasure at this well known. He took breaks in his pouting to show Jin Ling around Lotus Pier, as best as a small person could show a place to a baby who couldn’t walk and who they weren’t yet allowed to carry around.
In practice, this meant that Jiang Cheng carried Jin Ling from place to place as Wei Yuan imperiously led them to all of his favorite places, the training grounds and lakesides and trees and one very mysterious corner that Wei Yuan liked for no reason that Jiang Cheng could see, ending each day outside Lan Wangji’s room, peeping through the door to hopefully inquire whether his gege was fit to ‘come and play.’
Once Lan Wangji had recovered from the trip and was once again capable of sitting upright to spend some portion of each day with Wei Yuan, this previously undisplayed clinginess vanished once more. Jiang Cheng was grateful for it, because the work that had been left while he had been kicking his heels at the Cloud Recesses had overflowed from his desk onto the floor next to it.
Jiang Cheng had sent the Jin nursemaid back to Koi Tower when they arrived at Lotus Pier, and a trusted auntie from Yunmeng had been engaged to nurse Jin Ling and watch over Wei Yuan while Jiang Cheng carried out sect business. He found, however, that he didn’t like to have them far out of his sight and hearing for too much of the day. So he either carried his paperwork and a travel desk outside to watch them play, or let them play quietly on the floor of his office as the auntie dozed gently in the corner.
One afternoon, when Lan Wangji was resting and nowhere to be found, the boys were on the floor, Wei Yuan directing Jin Ling while Jin Ling largely ignored him to shake his rattle bell or chew on his fingers. Jin Ling was going through a fussy spell, and Jiang Cheng was focusing so fully on his correspondence with Sect Leader Yao that he didn’t register at first when Jin Ling’s little cries stopped.
When he looked up, it took him a long moment to register the source of Jin Ling’s contentment. At first, it looked like a polished stick that he was gleefully gnawing on. “A-Yuan,” Jiang Cheng said slowly. “What is it that Jin Ling has?”
“I found Xian-gege’s flute on the shelf,” Wei Yuan said. “It’s for babies to chew, shushu!”
Jiang Cheng forced himself to move slowly as he walked to Jin Ling and carefully removed the dizi from his grasp, which of course moved Jin Ling from grumbly grouchiness to a full roar. The nursemaid in the corner sat up, winking sleep from her eyes as she began to get up to comfort him.
Jiang Cheng laid the dizi on a corner of the desk and picked up Jin Ling himself. “Go outside,” he said. He thrust a training kite at Wei Yuan. “Take this, see if there’s enough wind. Don’t fall in the water.” He let the nursemaid take Jin Ling and shepherd the boys out the door.
He sat at his desk, staring at the dizi. He didn’t get the letter finished that afternoon.
That night was one of Lan Wangji’s rare appearances at dinner. Jiang Cheng was in no mood for making conversation, and of course Lan Wangji never seemed to have grasped the concept of small talk. Wei Yuan talked rapturously about having met a shixiong who had shown him how to fly the kite and told him about learning archery by shooting kites.
Lan Wangji laid his chopsticks down neatly, signalling that he was finished eating and would now speak, and said seriously to Wei Yuan, “Wei Ying was a very good archer when he lived here. Perhaps your shushu could tell you how it is to learn to shoot like him.”
Jiang Cheng shot to his feet. “Perhaps you could teach him yourself,” he said, and left the room before he could carry out the violence that itched at his knuckles, Zidian crackling as he went. Whether either Lan Wangji or Wei Yuan had a response to that, he didn’t hear it.
The next morning, Wei Yuan greeted him somewhat cautiously at breakfast, and Jiang Cheng made a conscious effort to nod normally and speak calmly, and Wei Yuan seemed to relax. Lan Wangji did not show his face at all, but then, he usually didn’t.
The days flew by, and sooner than Jiang Cheng could have imagined it, it was nearly the new year and Jin Ling was due back at Koi Tower. His fussiness had eased somewhat, and he was turning into quite a hearty child. The idea of sending him away troubled him, and he regretted now having given the six-month terms; perhaps he could have found a way for more time.
“Jin Ling must return to Koi Tower tomorrow,” he said one evening at dinner, after Wei Yuan had finished telling them about his shooting practice with the Jiang juniors. Jin Ling, whose face and hands were still being wiped down by the nursemaid, had no objection, but Wei Yuan lifted his face in immediate protest.
“Why?” he asked immediately. “No, shushu, I don’t want him to go away.”
“That’s how it works,” said Jiang Cheng. “We get Jin Ling for half the year, and they get him for half. He’s the heir to both sects, so he must know and understand them both.”
“Can’t the Jins find someone else to be the sect heir?” asked Wei Yuan plaintively. “He can be ours and they’ll get another one and he can stay here forever.”
“That’s up to the Jins,” said Jiang Cheng. “For now this is how it will be. I’ll go by sword, since it’s just him. I can be back by dinnertime if we leave early enough, and if the Jins don’t insist on throwing some kind of welcoming banquet.”
“Hm,” said Lan Wangji, who was sitting on the other side of Wei Yuan and who had thus far not offered an opinion one way or the other on Jin Ling’s departure.
Jiang Cheng scowled at him. “I’ll pack a bag,” he said grudgingly. “Of course there will be a banquet. Are you going to stay here and keep an eye on this one while I’m gone?” he added. “You can make yourself useful for once.”
“I must stay,” Lan Wangji said. “Officially, I am still in seclusion and I should not be seen.”
“Gege, what’s seclusion?” Wei Yuan asked.
“It is when a person stays away from the world in order to think or to recover,” Lan Wangji said.
Wei Yuan nodded. “I’ll be in seclusion with you tomorrow, gege,” he said. “I’ll need all day to recover from Jin Ling being taken away from me.” He sighed gustily.
“He’ll come back,” said Jiang Cheng, nettled.
“Not for forever,” said Wei Yuan mournfully, and looked down at his hands, lip trembling.
“Perhaps when Jin Ling is at Koi Tower, we can go on a nighthunt together,” Jiang Cheng suggested. Both Wei Yuan and Lan Wangji shot their heads up to stare at him, one with hopeful longing and one with shocked outrage. “An easy one,” he said defensively. “It’s never too early to start.”
Lan Wangji didn’t say anything in front of Wei Yuan, but Jiang Cheng could tell from the speaking look he was sending over Wei Yuan’s head that he had some very firm opinions on that.
Jiang Cheng smirked at him and sat back.
The next morning, Jiang Cheng flew with Jin Ling to Koi Tower. His retinue was modest, and consisted mostly of senior disciples. It was never good to bring the little ones to Koi Tower, not until they could handle themselves well in less politically charged circumstances.
Jiang Cheng endured the delivery of Jin Ling to the nursery, and the greetings of Jin Guangshan and Madam Jin, and tried hard not to think about the next six months without his nephew. The banquet was reasonably interesting, watching Madam Jin barking orders to Jin Guangyao while Jin Guangshan practiced strategic deafness.
As the evening wore on, there seemed to be an endless parade of disciples in gold robes coming and going, and Jiang Cheng took advantage of the swirls of activity to make sure the Jiang disciples knew they were freed from duty and might leave or stay as they liked, but he was leaving, and then did so.
He detoured through the gardens on the way back to his rooms, enjoying a moment of cold fresh air after the heat of the banquet hall. A strange squeaking noise caught his attention, and he turned a corner swiftly to see a pair of Jin disciples with their heads bent together in conversation. The taller of the two seemed to be holding the other’s hands, but as Jiang Cheng drew quietly closer, he could see that the disciple was bending back the smaller boy’s pinky in a way that looked very painful, and he coughed.
The boys sprang apart, and the smaller boy looked deeply relieved, discreetly shaking out his newly released hand. The older disciple looked sulky, mostly, an expression that looked very comfortable on the dark prettiness of his face. “What’s going on here?” Jiang Cheng said.
“Nothing,” the older disciple muttered. He shot a look at the boy he had apparently been tormenting, and the boy shook his head without speaking.
“Go,” said Jiang Cheng, jerking his head at him, and the boy fled gratefully. He eyed the boy. “What tricks are you up to, boy?”
“Fuck off,” said the disciple, and turned and left without another word.
Jiang Cheng stood there a moment, then shook his head and went to his rooms. Whatever it was, it was a Jin matter and not his business.
He didn’t see either disciple on the way out of Koi Tower in the morning. His mood at leaving Jin Ling there, already a weight in his chest, turned the whole day sour, and he would have loved a chance to beat that lad if he’d had the opportunity. How dare the Jins allow their disciples to be treated thusly.
He didn’t speak much for the rest of the day, although he did allow Wei Yuan’s hug of greeting upon his arrival.
A few days later, a courier arrived from Gusu very late at night, and Jiang Cheng declined to wake Lan Wangji, passing it to him as he arrived in the hall for breakfast. Lan Wangji opened the note but not the package, setting it aside.
“You got a present, gege,” said Wei Yuan, eyeing the small wrapped box that sat on the table between them.
Lan Wangji’s mouth softened as he looked at Wei Yuan. “My brother often likes to send a small token for my birthday, if we happen to be separated on the days before it comes,” he said.
“When is your birthday, gege?” Wei Yuan asked.
“It’s today,” said Lan Wangji, and Jiang Cheng looked at him sharply.
“I didn’t know that,” he said.
Lan Wangji nodded but Wei Yuan was the one who spoke. “Oh, then I’m five now,” he said cheerfully.
Jiang Cheng frowned. “It’s Lan-er-gongzi’s birthday, not yours,” he said.
“Mine was already this month,” Wei Yuan explained, and added a sprinkle of yuk sung to his congee before starting to eat. “So I’m five.”
Jiang Cheng stared at Lan Wangji, whose shocked and unhappy face mirrored his own feelings, then turned to Wei Yuan. “How do you know when your birthday is?” he asked. “Why didn’t you tell us when it was?”
“Xian-gege said my birthday was right before gege’s,” said Wei Yuan. He had been placidly eating but he started to look concerned. “Is it bad? Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” said Lan Wangji swiftly, recovering faster than Jiang Cheng, whose head was still spinning. “We wanted to wish you well and we are sorry that we have missed it, that’s all.”
Wei Yuan looked worried. “Am I not five?” he asked. “Am I still four after all?”
“You are five,” said Lan Wangji. “We will remember for next year to celebrate your birthday before mine.”
Wei Yuan brightened. “Thank you, gege, thank you, shushu,” he said. “Next year I’ll be six!”
Jiang Cheng coughed to clear his throat, which was tight. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “It seemed like yesterday you were only a very little person.”
“Now I’m big,” Wei Yuan said, pleased with himself. He ducked his head and looked up at Jiang Cheng from under the hair that fell in his face. “Big enough for a bow?” he asked.
Jiang Cheng had not intended to commission a bow for Wei Yuan until he had grown more; it didn’t make sense to craft them individually while children were so small, and the youngest disciples all used the common bows until they were the same size for more than a season at a time.
“Big enough for a bow,” he found himself agreeing, and avoided Lan Wangji’s gaze. This was his nephew, and the Jiang sect was growing stronger and richer. Surely he could afford one bow for one small child without hearing anyone else’s opinion on the matter!
In the temporary absence of Jin Ling, Wei Yuan meshed well into Jiang Cheng’s daily life. He was old enough now to attend training regularly with the other disciples of the sect, and while Jiang Cheng led the training for the oldest disciples, not the youngest, he found a burst of pleased pride when he caught glimpses of Wei Yuan’s studious and hard-working little self across the grounds. He couldn’t help but picture years to come when Wei Yuan and Jin Ling would train together, bringing pride and honor to the Jiang sect.
Lan Wangji did not mesh well into Jiang Cheng’s daily life, although thankfully he saw little enough of him. He had remained at Lotus Pier without discussion or explanation, taking Wei Yuan’s free time whenever Lan Wangji was feeling strong enough.
Lan Wangji had not discussed it, of course, and he would never ask, but the pattern of his recovery seemed clear. He would overexert himself, then seclude himself to rest for several days, often appearing feverish or confused if he was disturbed during that time. Then he’d reappear, making little mention of his previous absence.
Lan Wangji was in the latter stage now, appearing at the edge of the training ground at the end of the day, when Wei Yuan was sure to see him when the disciples were dismissed. Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes at the way Lan Wangji gripped the edge of a pillar. Not as recovered as he could be, if he still needed to brace himself, then.
When Wei Yuan spied him, he took off at full speed across the training grounds. Jiang Cheng winced in anticipation, but Wei Yuan was wise far beyond his years and slowed his feet for the last several paces so that his hug for Lan Wangji was gentle, rather than the full-bodied collisions with which he frequently gifted Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng was too far to hear their conversation, but he could imagine it from the looks on their faces. Wei Yuan was pleading with Lan Wangji, who was shaking his head. Jiang Cheng gave him only a few moments before he caved -- and there it was, Lan Wangji giving a sigh and a nod, whereupon Wei Yuan dragged him off and out of Jiang Cheng’s sight.
Jiang Cheng rededicated himself to his work, bearing down with a shout on a hapless junior who kept missing steps in his form, and if he had any memories about being a youth at the Cloud Recesses watching his brother charm Lan Wangji in much the same way, he kept them to himself.
The bow that Jiang Cheng had commissioned for Wei Yuan was sleek, and he carried it everywhere with him; Jiang Cheng had even caught him sleeping with one hand resting on the limb. He had been making great progress in training and he listened very well. Lan Wangji had not had anything to say to him thus far on the plan he had offered to Wei Yuan, admittedly somewhat impulsively, to bring him along on a night hunt, but then again, Jiang Cheng had not brought it up either.
He tapped the note he had just received against his mouth thoughtfully. A request for assistance from a possessed beast that was tearing up crops and menacing villagers -- it was a simple enough task that he would usually have sent a small team of younger juniors to take care of, to give them a little bit of seasoning and experience. It was something that he could probably handle in his sleep. An ideal hunt to take Wei Yuan on, in other words.
He wouldn’t want the boy actually getting in the way, of course. He was a little young for a true hunt, although not terribly so. He’d take a small team only, perhaps give an older disciple a chance to practice solving this kind of problem while also keeping protection in mind. And he’d be there, of course, to ensure that Wei Yuan would only ever be in enough danger to be exciting.
When he gathered Wei Yuan and his second disciple, he didn’t deliberately plan their departure for a time when Lan Wangji was not in the courtyard, but he was conscious of not wishing to discuss the matter with him. Wei Yuan was practically vibrating with excitement as he clasped his bow and stepped onto Sandu with Jiang Cheng.
They spoke quietly on the way to the site that had reported the beast most recently. “You’ll listen carefully,” Jiang Cheng said. “You’re bringing your bow but I don’t expect you to use it, I expect you to use your eyes and ears -- you’re coming to watch and learn. I’ll be looking for your report and observations after, so I expect you to pay attention.”
“Yes, shushu,” said Wei Yuan. Jiang Cheng saw him start scanning the countryside already, and let himself smile into the wind, unobserved.
When they descended to the farm with disturbed fields, the farmer came to greet them. He blinked at Wei Yuan’s presence, but didn’t comment, which Jiang Cheng appreciated.
“Well met, sect leader,” he said, bowing. “Are you here to eliminate this cursed beast?”
“Of course,” Jiang Cheng said shortly and stepped back slightly. He looked to his disciple, indicating that he should take the lead in questioning the man.
Once the disciple had pulled the most relevant information out of him, that the beast had been seen in the west, the day before, and it had disrupted most of the crops there but had run away when confronted by the farmer’s son, despite being easily thrice larger than a normal beast of its type.
As they walked west, swords at the ready, the disciple summarized the plan to Wei Yuan. “The beast seems to have been taken by a spirit, but he does not yet fully realize it. Our goal is going to be to injure, but not kill, the beast, and liberate the spirit before it can be parted from the animal. If it receives a fatal blow too soon, it may try to possess the nearest person, and that may be you, xiao, so be careful!”
Wei Yuan looked up at him with large eyes and nodded respectfully. “Yes, er-shixiong!”
Jiang Cheng hung back slightly, letting them feel as though they were in the lead, though he was really using the distance as an opportunity to scan the horizon, as well as activate his qi slightly, feeling for disturbed spirits that might be wandering nearby. He sensed it first, but it was not long before the disciple stiffened and said quietly, “There, A-Yuan, do you see it?”
The beast was on a ridge half a li away, facing away from them. The disciple nocked the arrow that he had been resting against his bow but kept his arm loose and his voice low. “We’re still a little far for a well-aimed shot. We’d want to cover about half this distance, and closer if we can do it without disturbing him. Move quietly now.” Wei Yuan watched him carefully, imitating his toe-heel, foot-rolling movements, doing a fair job of remaining quiet as he went.
They made it very close, within perhaps 50 chi, before the beast began to toss its head and begin to look around nervously, and the disciple didn’t wait for him to sight them, bringing up, drawing, and letting his arrow fly in one smooth motion. The shot was true, piercing the beast’s shoulder and forcing it to the ground with a bellow. “Talisman to subdue,” the disciple muttered to Wei Yuan, as he threw it. “Another to liberate. Cleanse and summon.”
His aim was true, and the talismans hit their marks. The beast shouted again, sounding almost like a yell of human anguish, then slumping and shrinking before their eyes as the spiritual energy surrounding it dissipated into the ground. The disciple stopped and waited, longer even than Jiang Cheng might have done, before approaching the beast. “Two approaches,” he said. “We can pull the arrow and release the beast, if the injury is small, or we can put him out of his misery and deliver him to the farmer as recompense for the lost crops. The meat is still good, now that the spirit is gone.”
“Another reason to injure, not kill, while liberating,” added Jiang Cheng. “If the beast had been killed while still possessed, the meat would be poisoned.”
The disciple made a face of ultimate disgust at Wei Yuan, and he giggled. “If I were alone in this case,” the disciple said, “I would probably bring the beast back to the farmer. That field looked to be in rough shape.”
“Your judgement is sound,” said Jiang Cheng. “Carry on.”
The disciple tried to hide his pleasure at the praise from Jiang Cheng as he went through the steps of slaughtering and preparing the animal for transport back to the farm, explaining to Wei Yuan as he went as before. Jiang Cheng made a mental note to allow this disciple to take juniors to more challenging night hunts; he had been pleased with his teaching skill as much as with his easy disposal of the spirit.
The farmer was overjoyed at the gift of meat, almost bowing to the ground in his thanks. Jiang Cheng endured it only long enough not to be rude before mounting his sword once more to head back to Lotus Pier, and allowing Wei Yuan to bounce back on.
That night after dinner, Wei Yuan was full of his observations, recounting the story to Lan Wangji breathlessly. Jiang Cheng was pleased over the amount he had picked up, repeating his shixiong’s words almost verbatim.
“It seems that you did very well,” said Lan Wangji seriously. “I am glad you listened to your shixiong.”
Jiang Cheng braced himself for Lan Wangji’s cold glare, but Lan Wangji ignored him fully through the evening as he listened to Wei Yuan chatter. As they all rose to depart for their rooms, Lan Wangji took a deep breath and said, not exactly addressing Jiang Cheng, but rather the air to his left ear, “This was not the worst night hunt he could have gone on, despite his tender years.”
Jiang Cheng had many possible responses to that but he also took a moment to breathe before letting his worst impulses fly. “The juniors must not be coddled but they must also step on solid ground first.”
Lan Wangji only nodded and departed. Jiang Cheng, as he so often did when testing his wits against Lan Wangji, found himself gritting his teeth against harsher words for the rest of the evening.
The next day, he was happy to let them fly. “What are these,” he said flatly, picking up, then throwing down, a sheaf of notes onto the desk Lan Wangji had claimed as his own in the library. It was not a question and they both knew it. Wei Wuxian’s terrible handwriting sprawled across the pages of cheap paper, and Lan Wangji’s neat characters lined the margins, annotating the notes that had clearly been retrieved from the Burial Mounds. “How dare you bring his work here, what were you thinking!” Despite himself, his voice was rising.
Lan Wangji simply gathered the pages and tapped the edges square. “Wei Wuxian was brilliant,” he said. “His scholarship --”
“Scholarship nothing!” Jiang Cheng shouted. “He was a traitor to our sect!”
“Do you really believe that?” Lan Wangji said, jerking his head up from the papers to glare.
“Of course,” bit out Jiang Cheng. “What else are we to think of his actions? He killed thousands, he lost himself entirely, even when he had every chance--”
“Chance?” Lan Wangji cut in, sounding more heated than his usual icy demeanor allowed. “He had no chance and you know it.”
“You’re awfully forgiving of someone who tried to kill you and your whole family,” Jiang Cheng said. “You were there at Nightless City, you saw the results of his demonic cultivation, and now you want to use the things that he created from it? I have allowed you to stay at Lotus Pier, but I do not have to allow this!” He reached for the papers, but Lan Wangji made them disappear with a flick of his fingers.
“You would be a fool to cast his work aside,” said Lan Wangji. “He was always your superior in skill and knowledge and to let your feelings outweigh his contributions, even after you helped to kill him --”
“His work killed him!” Jiang Cheng roared. “He was torn apart by his own demonic cultivation! I went there to save him!” He stopped to breathe and only then realized what he’d said. He and Lan Wangji stared at each other for a long minute, and then Jiang Cheng turned and fled.
It was impossible to fully avoid Lan Wangji, but Jiang Cheng found that it was relatively easy to let his existence at Lotus Pier sink into the background and bury himself in work. Wei Yuan, at least, didn’t seem to notice much difference, which was a small mercy.
Soon enough it was time to return to Koi Tower to retrieve Jin Ling for his next stint at Lotus Pier, and Jiang Cheng welcomed the distraction and chance to travel, despite the unfortunate destination. Going by sword made it a swift trip, but that was usually the only thing that went quickly at Koi Tower.
He arrived, landing as close as he judged he could with any politeness, and walked to where Jin Guangyao was waiting for him. Jiang Cheng saluted, and Jin Guangyao returned the gesture. “How’s Jin Ling?” Jiang Cheng asked as Jin Guangyao escorted him inside. “Where is he?”
Jin Guangyao was looking a little wild around the eyes. “He’s very well,” he said. “He’s really increased in many ways over the past months.” Jiang Cheng had no idea what he could have meant by that but Jin Guangyao didn’t seem inclined to elaborate.
They heard Madam Jin coming before they saw her. “Useless! Lazy! Insolent! Where is that boy, fetch him here! He’s hiding, I know he--” As she came into view and realized that a guest was present, her ugly scowl smoothed quickly into a hospitable smile and her tone faded into a croon. “Jiang-zongzhu, how nice to see you today. Has it been half a year already? Absolutely unbelievable. Is all well at Lotus Pier?”
Jiang Cheng bowed without looking at Jin Guangyao, but he felt the air around them move as he retreated from view as quickly as he had ever witnessed someone move. “Thank you, Jin-furen. Yes, all is well, thank you. Is all well here? Has Jin Ling been well?”
She laughed. “Oh, he’s grown so much you may not recognize him! How dare babies do this to us, he’ll be an adult in a blink. Why don’t you come with me to the nursery and you can see for yourself how he is?”
“Wonderful,” said Jiang Cheng, and as they walked, Madam Jin chatted lightly at him without requiring much of a response, which was perfectly fine with him.
Jin Ling had indeed grown, his babyish roundness fading into toddler awkwardness, but he recognized Jiang Cheng and lit up, pushing himself to his feet and lurching to throw himself against his legs. Jiang Cheng patted his head.
“I’ll let you get reacquainted,” said Madam Jin. “I have preparations for dinner tonight -- you’ll be staying, of course?”
Jiang Cheng bared his teeth and hoped it looked like a smile. “Of course,” he said.
Her smile turned dark. “I need to find that worthless person,” she said. “Did you see where he slunk off to? I’ve been trying to arrange an engagement for him, far above his reach, but he’s been avoiding the subject.” When Jiang Cheng only shrugged, she nodded. “We’ll just see,” she added, ominously, and Jiang Cheng turned back to Jin Ling and the nursery before he could display any reaction to that.
Jin Ling was a pleasant companion for the afternoon, bringing toy after toy to Jiang Cheng to inspect, then snatching them back lest he keep them. He was talking a little, in a language that seemed to make sense only to himself, but he seemed well to Jiang Cheng’s critical eye. He was sorry when it was time to leave for dinner.
He was even sorrier once he was at dinner. Madam Jin’s changeable moods seemed to have swept from polite hostess to enraged virago over the course of the afternoon, and her sniping at first Jin Guangyao and then Jin Guangshan, however much they may have deserved it, made it difficult for Jiang Cheng to enjoy much of the meal. It was not much consolation that nobody else seemed to be enjoying it, either.
“Ah, you’re hardly eating,” said Madam Jin silkily to her husband. “Perhaps we should call a doctor?” Her raised eyebrows seemed to imply that this was meant to be an insult, and Jin Guangshan took a larger than wise swig from his liquor cup. “I’m sure your son can recommend someone?”
“I’m perfectly fine,” snapped Jin Guangshan.
“Of course, I forgot, you have an iron...constitution,” said Madam Jin. She rolled her eyes.
The dinner seemed endless -- course after course, entertainment, even a round of toasts that amounted to speeches -- and Jiang Cheng wanted nothing more than to flip the tables over and go retrieve his nephew and leave. But he waited until enough of the Jins had slid under the tables from an excess of wine that he could slink out the side door.
It was very late, of course, and he didn’t expect Jin Ling to be awake at this hour, so he simply went to his guest room, which was quite fortunately very close to the nursery. If he rose early enough, it was just possible that he would be able to leave without much ceremony.
There was no way he could have predicted the manner of his awakening. It was just past dawn, the light still not reaching much past his window, when Jiang Cheng flew awake suddenly, a weight on his chest pressing him down as though he was being crushed alive. When he opened his eyes, there was Jin Ling staring intently at him, knees against his neck, inches from his face, waiting for him to awaken.
Jiang Cheng struggled to free his arms from his blankets and reached up to carefully remove Jin Ling to a safer distance. If he snuck a hug while he was doing it, who was to say? Jin Ling, who curled up in the bed next to him and went back to sleep, wasn’t objecting. Jiang Cheng spent longer than he would have admitted just staring at his sleeping face, cataloging from this close view all of the changes that had occurred since he’d seen him last.
He eventually was able to rise and prepare for the day’s travel ahead of them. Because he’d traveled by sword, this time the nursemaid wouldn’t accompany them on the trip. He left Jin Ling sleeping in his bed and went to the nursery to stow some of Jin Ling’s things.
The nursemaid that greeted him had Jin Ling’s clothing and a few toys packed up already, which he appreciated. “It’s good that you’re young,” she said, which he didn’t. “You have all the energy in the world to chase after him.” Jiang Cheng just raised his eyebrows, no idea how he was supposed to respond. She laughed. “Ah, you’ll see, my lad!” She leaned in. “My advice: never take your eyes off him. In fact, what have you done with him?”
Jiang Cheng took the bag she offered and hurried back to his room. Jin Ling had emerged from the bed and was engaged in removing each item from Jiang Cheng’s bag, carefully examining its capacity for flight, and either hurling it out the open window or leaving it in a tangled mess on the floor, depending on the result of his assessment. Jiang Cheng shouted and leaped forward, trying to save his comb from joining any other of his items that were now littering some courtyard.
Jin Ling startled at the shout and began to cry, big fat tears rolling down his cheeks. Jiang Cheng found himself picking him up in order to comfort him, and Jin Ling hit him solidly in the mouth with one flailing hand. Jiang Cheng had learned his lesson, and held his shout in, while still firmly holding Jin Ling’s hand away from his face.
He had gathered and resettled his things that remained in the room, and added Jin Ling’s to his bag, when there was a gentle knock on the door. He swooped to pick up Jin Ling when he answered it, rather than turn his back on him for even a moment. When he opened the door, he discovered Jin Guangyao with an armful of small items, looking amused.
“Is this a trick you’re used to?” Jiang Cheng grumbled, gesturing for Jin Guangyao to enter and set the things on a small table.
Jin Guangyao hid a small smile behind his sleeve. “I have to admit that it’s more amusing when it’s not ancient or precious artifacts,” he admitted. The stressed look that he had held the night before had vanished. “May I suggest that you secure him to you as you fly? He has traveled short distances by sword lately and it has become a perilous venture, as he is inclined to fling himself down if he’s given half a chance.” Jiang Cheng looked at Jin Ling, alarmed. Jin Ling reached out to investigate Jiang Cheng’s hair ornament, pulling a lock of hair so hard that it made Jiang Cheng’s eyes water. “Have a pleasant journey,” said Jin Guangyao, his cheerfulness now at a level that Jiang Cheng found highly irritating. He turned and left as Jiang Cheng was still untangling Jin Ling’s fingers from his hair.
Jiang Cheng returned with Jin Ling to the nursery. The nursemaid who had spoken with him before looked up in curiosity. “How can I help, young master?” she asked.
“Do you have a way to tie him to me?” asked Jiang Cheng. “I had hoped to travel by sword back to Yunmeng, and it’s quite far. Jin Guangyao has told me about his inclination to send himself down to investigate the scenery.”
The nursemaid laughed and produced a long strip of fabric. Jiang Cheng pressed Jin Ling to his chest at her instruction, and she weaved and wound the cloth around him until Jin Ling was secure, despite his best efforts to wiggle free. He saluted, and she waved back, pressing a kiss onto Jin Ling’s head, which was the only part of him still visible.
“Ah, if you’re flying, you’ll get cold,” she said, and handed Jiang Cheng a small cap, and watched while he carefully covered Jin Ling’s head. This was a step too far for him, and he began to cry at the indignity. The nursemaid didn’t even try to conceal her smile, and Jiang Cheng left, feeling extremely annoyed at the world.
After all that, Jin Ling slept most of the way to Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng descended to the courtyard to find Wei Yuan, escorted by Lan Wangji, waiting impatiently for their arrival. Jin Ling had started to perk up as the sword descended, and he reached his arms out for Wei Yuan, grunting with impatience as Jiang Cheng puzzled out the intricacies of the sling. In the end, Lan Wangji had to step forward to help untie him so it could be unwound. By then, Wei Yuan was practically leaping from one foot to another with impatience.
Jin Ling burst free from the imprisonment like a tiger from a cage, and roared forth to Wei Yuan’s arms, permitting a brief hug before escaping to run to the edge of the courtyard, his steps swift despite their unsteadiness.
Wei Yuan looked up, grinned at Jiang Cheng, and followed after Jin Ling. Jiang Cheng looked at Lan Wangji, and Lan Wangji looked at him. “We’re in for it,” Jiang Cheng said grimly, his first words to Lan Wangji in weeks, and followed the boys.
Despite Jin Ling’s newfound inclination to mayhem performed at top speed, he slotted back into Jiang Cheng’s life like a button into a loop. The auntie who had minded him as a baby came back, this time all of her focus on preventing Jin Ling from destroying Lotus Pier entirely. Jin Ling couldn’t be permitted to play in his office until his criminal tendencies could be controlled, but the late summer weather was fine and Jiang Cheng was happy to do as much work outside as he could.
Wei Yuan was also now old enough to be trusted to look after him, when he wasn’t training with the other juniors, and he took his responsibility seriously. His absolute shining love for ‘his baby’ had only grown while they were parted, and Jiang Cheng often heard Wei Yuan speaking with Jin Ling with great seriousness, describing his own training or telling him stories.
Jiang Cheng was finishing a letter on a lap desk in the courtyard, listening to Wei Yuan chattering away to Jin Ling as they played some kind of game of Wei Yuan’s invention with a ball and a stick. Jiang Cheng wouldn’t have chosen to give Jin Ling a stick, but Wei Yuan seemed to be dodging it reasonably well. Perhaps that was even part of the game, he supposed.
“I remember being little,” said Wei Yuan to Jin Ling, and Jiang Cheng hid his smile. “Xian-gege said that I would grow big and strong if I was planted in the earth like a radish. We ate radishes most days,” he continued thoughtfully, and stepped aside from a swipe of Jin Ling’s stick. Jiang Cheng’s smile had vanished. “It’s better here because there’s more food but I wish you had met Xian-gege. Being buried in the dirt is fun.” He threw the ball and Jin Ling shrieked and ran to retrieve it. Wei Yuan ran after him.
Jiang Cheng stared down at the letter he was working on, listening to their distant yelling. The ink dried on his stone before he picked up the brush again.
Lan Wangji was usually found in the library, now that Wei Yuan’s time was being monopolized by his young cousin, and Jiang Cheng encountered him there again one evening after the children had been ushered to their beds.
The previous night had been a late one for him; he had led a group of juniors in a night hunt to clear out a pack of ghouls in Yunping City, in what had looked like a group of concubines or prostitutes from a building that had burned down but had been improperly cleansed afterward. He had had to be very sharp with several of the disciples; the spirits of slain women were always fiercer, and they had been insufficiently forceful in suppressing and eliminating their ghosts.
He was looking now for the exact volume he would have them copy; a small treatise that had been brought from Meishan on specific cultivation differences in the liberation of female spirits versus male ones. The Jiang library was not on par with the one that GusuLan boasted, of course, even after the war, but he did pride himself on its depth, if not breadth.
It was not until he had retrieved the volume that he even realized that Lan Wangji was there. He was in a small desk near the back wall, sitting with his typical graceful posture and reading some work or letter written on rough, cheap paper. “Isn’t it nearly nine?” Jiang Cheng said gruffly, and Lan Wangji jerked his head up, looking startled.
“Mn,” he said in agreement, and began to stow the papers carefully, laying blank sheets between them in order to protect them. Jiang Cheng stepped closer, a little curious, and Lan Wangji turned one page a bit unluckily at that moment.
The handwriting on the page was perfectly, uncannily recognizable. Lan Wangji was once again reading some letter or note from --
Jiang Cheng clenched his teeth and left the library without saying another word.
Soon after, Jiang Cheng received a visitor to Lotus Pier. Nie Mingjue had been a strong ally to the Jiang sect, and he was never afraid to stand up against the Jins, so when he had written to ask if he might come to discuss sect business, Jiang Cheng had been glad to agree.
He had warned Lan Wangji the day before, so that if he wanted to maintain the fiction that he was in seclusion, he could make himself scarce. Sure enough, the next day when he was alerted that Nie Mingjue had arrived, Lan Wangji was nowhere to be seen.
“Chifeng-Zun,” Jiang Cheng said in greeting, saluting respectfully.
“Greetings to you as well,” Nie Mingjue said gruffly. “Good to see you.”
Jiang Cheng served tea, and they settled in to discuss sect business, which Jiang Cheng had to admit sometimes didn’t look a lot different from gossiping on the face of it. Nie Mingjue was especially well connected to the latest news, and Jiang Cheng suspected Nie Huaisang’s hand in that.
“This tower scheme,” said Jiang Cheng finally, which was what he had most hoped to discuss that day.
Nie Mingjue sighed and rolled his eyes. “It’s a good idea,” he said. “Ancestors help us, it’s a good idea. But it can’t happen.”
Jiang Cheng echoed his sigh. “You’re right, of course. But there’s been rumors of demonic cultivators to the northwest of here, and I’ve been getting letters from minor sects asking for help. They’re borderline with Lanling and here, but they say they haven’t gotten any response from the Jin sect.”
“I’ve been getting letters like that as well,” Nie Mingjue admitted. “We do what we can, but it’s been hard to figure out where to target once the letters have finally arrived. Lately it seems like we’ve been doing cleanup rather than being any actual help. That’s where those damn towers would come in handy.”
“Is there a way we can make it happen without making LanlingJin the center face of it?” asked Jiang Cheng. “If we could get the smaller sects to agree--”
But Nie Mingjue was shaking his head. “If we tried to do it without them, suddenly it would be the worst idea, a gross overstep, impossible. It seems to be the Jin way or no way, and personally I’d prefer no way.”
Jiang Cheng had to reluctantly agree, and they turned onto the topic of the demonic cultivators, trying to devise a strategy for communicating about them so they could pool information, when the door to the room they were in banged open and Wei Yuan rushed in, trailed as usual by Jin Ling.
“Shushu, shushu, we --” he stopped abruptly. “Oh, shushu, I’m sorry!” he said, and bowed low. “I didn’t know you had a guest, this disciple regrets interrupting!”
“A-Yuan, come here,” said Jiang Cheng. “Let me introduce you to Chifeng-Zun, the Nie sect leader.” Wei Yuan stood and grabbed Jin Ling’s hand, then walked closer. “Chifeng-Zun, this is Wei Yuan, and of course you will remember Jin Ling.”
“Wei Yuan!” echoed Nie Mingjue. “Is that so!”
Jiang Cheng took a deep breath and sat up tall. “Yes,” he said, daring him to say something about it.
But Nie Mingjue only crooked a smile. “A nice lad. I’m sure you’re glad to have him around.”
Jiang Cheng agreed but it wouldn’t do to say it out loud. “When he remembers his manners,” he said instead and Wei Yuan ducked his head in embarrassment. “What did you need me for?” he asked.
“It can wait, shushu,” said Wei Yuan meekly.
“Fine, then,” said Jiang Cheng. “Go.” Wei Yuan obediently went, remembering to make his farewell salutes just in time, and Jin Ling copied him as best he could.
He turned back to Nie Mingjue, both dreading, and, strangely, looking forward to some mention of Wei Wuxian, but the crooked smile was gone and Nie Mingjue was all business once more, leaping back into the problem of the demonic cultivators and devastated border villages.
Nie Mingjue stayed for dinner that night, and Wei Yuan was quite sheepish at the start, but he warmed up to him quickly, to Jiang Cheng’s surprise. He would never have thought that Nie Mingjue was good with children, but he spoke seriously to Wei Yuan, like an equal.
“Where is Lan Wangji?” Nie Mingjue said partway through the meal. “Is he still unwell? Xichen hasn’t been sure how he has been, and asked me to ask after him while I was here.”
Jiang Cheng raised his eyebrows. “He was under the impression that he was understood to be in seclusion.”
Nie Mingjue laughed. “Perhaps to most of the world, but Xichen and I are sworn brothers, of course he would ask for my help.”
Jiang Cheng nodded and turned to Wei Yuan. “Go and see if Lan Wangji will come to dinner. Say Nie-zongzhu asked for him specifically, that’s important.”
Wei Yuan hopped up from his bench and bowed, his face bright with happy importance. “Yes, shushu,” he exclaimed, and vanished. Jin Ling wiggled in his seat, looking as though he would try to follow, and Jiang Cheng had to frown at him for a long minute before he settled back down, a sulky pout across his face.
Wei Yuan returned quickly, Lan Wangji trailing behind him. He saluted Nie Mingjue and sat, Wei Yuan taking the seat next to him. Lan Wangji put a hand on his shoulder, a brief squeeze. Jiang Cheng could see Nie Mingjue watching, his eyes sharp but his face politely bland.
“I see you’re well, Wangji,” he said. “Your brother worries about you.”
“I write often,” said Lan Wangji, his eyes on the table in front of him.
“It’s not the same,” said Nie Mingjue, and his tone was so older-brotherly that Jiang Cheng looked away. “I’m glad you’ve made new friends. What have you been working on? You’ve told your brother a little about it and I confess I’m intrigued.”
Lan Wangji looked up. “A spiritual compass,” he said. “It can detect resentful energy. I’m working now to see if I can expand the range beyond a few li but for now it’s very precise within that distance.” He looked at Jiang Cheng, then deliberately back at Nie Mingjue. “It was created by Wei Wuxian before his death,” he added. “I can send you the notes on how to create one for yourself if you like.”
Jiang Cheng sucked in a breath but waited to see Nie Mingjue’s reaction. It was underwhelming -- he raised his eyebrows only, and nodded slowly. “Sounds very interesting, if it works,” was all he said, and Jiang Cheng was forced to keep his feelings behind his teeth. Admittedly, a device for detecting resentful energy did sound...useful.
The dinner was soon over, and Nie Mingjue excused himself soon after Jin Ling was swept away by the nursemaid. “I’ll leave very early,” he said. “So I’ll say goodbye tonight. Wangji, do send me that compass. Jiang-zongzhu, please write to tell me what you plan to do about the requests you’ve had, and I’ll do the same. A pleasure, as always.”
Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji bowed, and Wei Yuan imitated them, hiding a little yawn and leaning hard into Lan Wangji’s side as he came up. Nie Mingjue patted his head gently. “I’ll see you again, lad, I’m sure. Take good care of your little shidi.”
Wei Yuan’s returning smile, though tired, was sweet.
After Jin Ling had returned once more to Koi Tower, but before the New Year, Jiang Cheng took the time to sit down with Wei Yuan to determine his exact birthday, so that they could be certain to celebrate it this year. The boy’s memory of the specifics was somewhat shaky, but he pinned it down to perhaps ten or twelve days before Lan Wangji’s, which was a satisfactory date, and he committed it to memory.
He didn’t think he’d ever forget having missed Wei Yuan’s first birthday with him.
When the day itself arrived, Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji spent the day in a silent competition. Jiang Cheng had arranged for Wei Yuan’s favorite foods to be served, while Lan Wangji, his face expressionless, had slipped Wei Yuan several sticks of candy and lucky money as he arrived at the table. Jiang Cheng excused Wei Yuan from his training for the day and took him to the docks to buy him little gifts, only to watch Lan Wangji gift him with a bamboo xiao just before dinner.
Watching Wei Yuan’s happy face as he patted his new beloved possessions at his side was a distinct pleasure, but so was watching his face as the servants brought forth small and beautiful osmanthus cakes to finish the meal. Jiang Cheng almost never got the last word with Lan Wangji, but somehow, he felt on this day that he had.
As he was retiring that night, something about that feeling tugged at him, and he pulled it out to re-examine it. It reminded him almost of the feeling he had had when he was preparing gifts for Jin Ling’s one month celebration, when he had been so determined to outshine Jin Zixuan. Was Lan Wangji comparable with Jin Zixuan, then? he thought. He certainly felt the same resigned, reluctant kinship toward him.
As he began to follow that thought to its logical conclusion, he shut it off, horrified. It was not the same situation at all and he would not contemplate it further.
Though he did not allow any such thoughts to enter his mind again, he could not escape the sense of familiarity that was growing around Lan Wangji’s annoying presence. He had been living at Lotus Pier for nearly three years, after all, as he recovered from his mysterious ailment and maintained his fiction of seclusion from the cultivation world.
He could admit to a reluctant sort of gratitude, as well. Lan Wangji had an abundance of patience with small children in a way that Jiang Cheng found incredibly difficult to maintain, and while he would not consider any suggestion that Wei Yuan or Jin Ling should live elsewhere unless absolutely required, he could, in the privacy of his own mind, admit that the raising of children did not come naturally to him.
While Jiang Cheng was turning these revelations over in his mind, Jin Ling had returned to Lotus Pier, three cun taller and through with wreaking random destruction. His destruction was much more targeted, now, and starting to be capable of being concealed to avoid detection and punishment. He had also learned to argue with more sophistication than bellowing NO in his interlocutor’s face, although that was often how he ended his arguments.
Jiang Cheng would have torn apart any danger with his bare hands in order to protect him, he would give his life for Jin Ling, but that didn’t help him understand how to convince him to eat properly at mealtimes or go to sleep at night or even bathe occasionally. Lan Wangji’s icy control meant that often, it was he who outlasted Jin Ling’s flares of temper, where Jiang Cheng had a hard time refraining from shouting.
On one such occasion, Jin Ling had thrown himself onto the floor and was wailing because Wei Yuan had eaten the dumpling that he had wanted, despite the five remaining identical dumplings, and Jiang Cheng was clenching his jaw, when Lan Wangji said, “Wanyin, please go and retrieve a blanket from A-Ling’s room, if you would.”
Jiang Cheng was glad for an excuse to go. He was up and out of the room before he fully comprehended the change in address, and it slowed his steps. He walked slowly and thoughtfully to Jin Ling’s room, chose a blanket, and returned.
“Here, Lan-xiong,” he said as he handed it over, a sense of mischief stirring despite the yells emanating from somewhere along the wall where Jin Ling had thrown himself. Lan Wangji stared at him for a long minute, and Jiang Cheng bit his cheek, hard, to keep his face straight.
“Thank you,” Lan Wangji said finally, and went to roll Jin Ling up in the blanket, which made his yells fade into weepy giggles.
Well. That was that, then, supposed Jiang Cheng. Fine with him.
When he wasn’t screaming with temper, Jin Ling was a charming child, prone to grabbing the hand or outer robe of the closest adult and trailing after him, imitating actions and posture to an exact degree. Jiang Cheng tested it once, putting his hands on his hips and seeing Jin Ling do the same, then crossing his arms and watching him change as well. He scowled to keep from smiling and giving away the game, and saw Jin Ling scowl as well, and he had to chew the inside of his cheek not to laugh outright.
Jin Ling was more confident and demanding than Wei Yuan had been at that age, and he accepted the affection of both Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji as his due, trotting after them equally. It was this habit that drew Jiang Cheng’s attention to the fact that it had been a longer stretch of time than usual since Lan Wangji had withdrawn to his rooms due to ill health; Jin Ling had chosen Lan Wangji to escort him around several times in a row, and Jiang Cheng could see none of the winces or hastily hidden signs of pain that he recalled from before.
“You seem recovered,” he said one afternoon in Lan Wangji’s direction. They were sitting outside watching Wei Yuan teach Jin Ling to play jianzi with limited success but great hilarity, Jiang Cheng with a lap desk and some correspondence that he was mostly ignoring, and Lan Wangji with a small book of poetry.
“Mn?” Lan Wangji said.
“I can’t recall the last time you were ill,” Jiang Cheng elaborated. “Are you well, now?”
“Mn,” said Lan Wangji. There was a long pause, and Jiang Cheng had even looked back to the letter he was trying to read, before he added, “Thank you.”
Jiang Cheng jerked his head back up in surprise. He stared at Lan Wangji, who was studying the book in his hands.
“It has been good,” Lan Wangji continued. “To be here and see A-Yuan as he grows.”
“Well,” said Jiang Cheng, startled. “I guess you haven’t been completely useless.”
Lan Wangji quirked the edge of his mouth in a faint smile. “Perhaps now that we understand each other better,” he said, “I could take A-Yuan for a visit to the Cloud Recesses. My brother has written several times now to ask for me to come and demonstrate my recovery in person, and I would like it if he could visit as well.”
Jiang Cheng thought it over. It wasn’t the worst idea in the world to allow Wei Yuan to make the trip. It was already drawing near time to return Jin Ling to Koi Tower; perhaps he could take advantage of that to make a closer inspection of the northern borders, if he were not concerned about being home within a day or two.
“That would be fine,” he said. “He’d have a good time.”
Jiang Cheng got the sense that he had startled Lan Wangji with his easy agreement, and somewhat contrarily wished he’d argued more, to see what Lan Wangji had been planning to bargain, but he let it go after a moment.
“Shall we leave the same day that you depart with Jin Ling for Koi Tower?” Lan Wangji said.
Jiang Cheng raised his eyebrows. “Exactly my thoughts,” he said. “I have things to investigate at the northern border, I had been thinking that I might need to take a week or more. If A-Yuan is safely in Gusu, I can look into the situation without hurrying.”
Lan Wangji nodded, then reached out and grabbed the shuttlecock a moment before it would have hit him, before Wei Yuan’s shout of warning even reached them.
“Show them how it’s done,” Jiang Cheng suggested, halfway between a tease and a dare, and Lan Wangji handed him the book of poetry and rose.
It was only a few minutes before Jiang Cheng was drawn into the game as well.
As Jiang Cheng prepared to take Jin Ling back to Koi Tower, he found that the boy, at three, was now too big to carry as he flew by sword, too big to carry tied to his chest or even back. He would have to trust the boy to stay calm, standing with him for the flight, or go by boat. He spent a long minute looking at Jin Ling, there in the courtyard, looking guilelessly up at him.
Lan Wangji and Wei Yuan, however, seemed settled enough for their trip. Jiang Cheng had not seen Lan Wangji ride Bichen in years, but he seemed to have lost none of his smooth facility as he mounted the sword, helped Wei Yuan step on, and rose to hover, waiting to depart.
“Bye, shushu!” said Wei Yuan, waving merrily. “Bye, A-Ling! Be good!”
Jin Ling made a dreadful face back at him but waved. “Bye, Wei-xiong! Bye, gege!”
Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling watched them rise up and out of view, then turned and looked at each other, and at Sandu. “Can you behave?” asked Jiang Cheng, scowling.
“Yes, jiujiu,” said Jin Ling.
Jiang Cheng kept scowling and drew Sandu, bidding it hover so they could mount. “I trust you,” he said, and stepped up. “Come.”
The flight wasn’t as bad as he had feared. Jin Ling seemed to be enjoying himself, and he held still almost the whole way there, which Jiang Cheng found himself reluctantly impressed by. Still, he was glad when they arrived. As was usual, Jin Guangyao was waiting for them, and he welcomed Jin Ling warmly.
“Will you stay?” he asked Jiang Cheng, and though perhaps it would be considered rude, he was delighted that he was able to answer in the negative.
“No, I have urgent business at the border,” he said. “There have been troubles in some outlying villages.”
Jin Guangyao smiled. “You know, it really would be helpful to be able to have cultivators stationed in the more remote areas, to take care of these problems as they arise,” he suggested.
“Of course it would,” Jiang Cheng retorted. “Nobody is saying it wouldn’t be. Getting it done with all the sects cooperating, that’s the problem.”
“The Jiang sect has grown quite a bit in power and influence,” Jin Guangyao said, “You have been recovering well from the position you were in after the war.”
Jiang Cheng waved him away. “I don’t have time for this right now, I need to go. I’ve heard of a group of demonic cultivators to the northwest with more nerve than sense, and the villages are begging for assistance.” Jin Guangyao’s smile became pained, but Jiang Cheng didn’t care. He embraced Jin Ling, despite the boy’s impatient squirming. “Be well, be strong,” he murmured. “I’ll see you soon.”
He mounted his sword and left.
The situation to the northwest was indeed quite dire, and it was closer to a month of travel before he was confident that the rogue demonic cultivators were eliminated or cowed into submission. He was more glad than ever that he had allowed Wei Yuan to travel with Lan Wangji; this had been no task for the most junior of disciples to witness.
He sent a courier to Lan Wangji that he would be traveling to Gusu to join them at Cloud Recesses; he was sure that if he asked, they would meet him back at Lotus Pier, but he wanted to get Lan Xichen’s opinion on any progress that had been made on the tower scheme.
He hadn’t been expecting to see Lan Wangji and Wei Yuan before arriving in Caiyi at least, but a good day’s journey out, there they were, unexpectedly turning up outside of Moling in the early evening.
“Shushu!” shouted Wei Yuan, and ran toward him. His face and robes were dirty, he looked thinner, he looked taller, and Jiang Cheng had missed him. He allowed the hug despite the dirt.
He held the boy back to look at him. “What have you been doing?” he asked, and gave him a little shake.
“Ah, we were on a night hunt, and we had to help a farmer rebuild some stuff,” admitted Wei Yuan. “Another possessed beast but this one got in the barn and tore some things up, so we stayed and helped clean up.”
Lan Wangji, traveling more sedately behind them, arrived. “Wei Yuan offered our assistance,” he said, and smiled slightly at him.
“Good,” said Jiang Cheng. “Now, are we going to get back to Gusu tonight or shall we make camp?”
Lan Wangji squinted up at the sky. “A fair night,” he said. “We had planned to camp before returning to Cloud Recesses. There is no need to rush.”
And so they set up camp in a likely-looking spot, Jiang Cheng and Lan Wangji keeping Wei Yuan busy fetching wood and water, and made an early night of it. Jiang Cheng’s last thought before he dozed off was that it had been nice to see Wei Yuan sooner than he had expected.
It was only a whisper of a sound but it was enough to jolt Jiang Cheng from light sleep directly into full awareness. It was a shoe scraping through a pile of dried leaves, the edge of a robe rasping against a tree trunk, and he took only enough time to pinpoint the direction before he was in motion, Sandu in his hand and Zidian ready to flash. He could see the glow of Bichen through the night’s gloom, and Lan Wangji beckoned him with it, signalling for him to flank their interloper. He intended to catch whoever it was in a pincer and interrogate, then. Jiang Cheng would prefer to attack first and ask questions later -- or never -- but if Lan Wangji had a plan, he’d follow. He slunk through the tents, circling their prey to flush them toward Lan Wangji.
The sudden clash of swords disturbed the night’s peace, and Jiang Cheng followed the forms of the battle from the slight distance he’d been afforded. The attacker used a flurry of blows, then danced back, a mixture of sheer strength and sloppy footwork -- a Jin disciple, or one of their minor sects, then. He waited for the next retreat, then let Zidian loose, as he could see the moment before he would step back.
A successful hit -- the pained gasp made it clear he’d scored a direct blow. What he didn’t expect was the low chuckle that followed it. “It’s time to play for real, then?” came a voice that seemed out of place. His tone was light, conversational, even playful. “I brought friends, Jiang-zongzhu. Zidian would like to play with them, I think.”
The scent of the grave hit him a moment later. Fierce corpses, high-level ones. To command corpses like this was an affront; to have them so close to the camp where Wei Yuan still slept peacefully was an obscenity. Jiang Cheng took a moment to activate a talisman, one that protected his mouth and nose from breathing in corpse dust. It had been developed before Sunshot by --
The fight began. The cultivation world had been at peace for years now, but Jiang Cheng still lived each battle inside his head at night; his reflexes were not dulled by time. This demonic cultivator had not fought in the war -- Jiang Cheng could see it in the maneuvers he used, brutal but clumsy. A Jin or formerly Jin disciple, probably quite young, who used demonic cultivation, then. He did not like the conclusions he was drawing from this attack, one made after Jin Ling was safely at Koi Tower and not before.
As he dealt with the corpses, he could tell that Lan Wangji continued to engage the demonic cultivator with Bichen, slashing through the corpses that tried to delay or interfere with him as though they were made of paper. The man, now freed from the constraint of silence, frequently gave out comments that sounded almost flirtatious as they fought, praising Lan Wangji’s sword or arm.
The corpses were many but not well-managed. Jiang Cheng had them subdued before Lan Wangji had fought his opponent to a standstill, and he paused a moment to follow again the pattern of their movements. As the mysterious assailant tired, he became even more predictable, and Jiang Cheng took his moment. He swiped the binding strokes of a rope-throwing talisman, and flung it to the spot where the man would be a moment later.
A thump let him know that he’d been accurate, which he had expected. The giggle that followed -- he had not. He came to check his ropes, and secure them further. The face indeed belonged to quite a young man, and while he looked familiar, Jiang Cheng couldn’t call his name to mind. “Who are you,” he barked as he secured more ropes around the man, paying careful attention to keeping his sleeves well out of the grasping range of his hands, and securing his hands closely to the ground for good measure.
He searched the sleeves carefully, patting down for talismans or spiritual objects, and what he found nearly took his breath away.
“I’m nobody to you,” he said as Jiang Cheng leaned over him, very cheerfully for a man fully pinned to the ground and unable to move. When he saw the object in Jiang Cheng’s hand, though, his smile faltered.
Jiang Cheng stood and moved back, striking with Zidian. He aimed for the soft, vulnerable spots -- beneath the chin, the sides of the belly, the inner arms, less- or unprotected by robes, and delivered solid, unflinching blows.
“Ah,” said the man, when Zidian coiled around his finger once more. “How forceful, sect leader!”
“Your name,” said Jiang Cheng. He felt, more than saw, Lan Wangji moving into place behind him. He glanced back and Lan Wangji nodded; the camp was secure, then, to his satisfaction. He refocused on their captive.
“I am Xue Yang at your service,” said the man promptly. “I would love to bow properly; why don’t you remove these ropes and I will pay proper respects.”
Jiang Cheng knelt, and unsheathed Sandu. “Why don’t you explain why you attacked our camp before you die, properly? Who is your sect, who sent you? Why do you have the Stygian Tiger Seal?” He heard a small exhalation from Lan Wangji as he held his sword over Xue Yang’s throat, letting it press just enough to show blood at the edge.
“It was fun,” Xue Yang replied. “I was having a good time. It’s a pretty little bauble.” Jiang Cheng pressed Sandu a little closer and the man gave a light laugh. “This is no way to conduct an interrogation,” he chided. “How can I possibly give you good information if I cannot express myself properly? You’re asking so many questions at once, it’s very confusing.”
“Demonic cultivators cannot be tolerated,” Jiang Cheng said. “Especially not one who brings corpses to menace a child. I am fine to live without answers.”
Lan Wangji said, “Wait.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t look away from where he had Xue Yang pinned. “I’m not taking him back to the Jins for their brand of lackluster justice. He has to die tonight.”
“If he has the amulet, we must take this chance to fully destroy it,” Lan Wangji said. “And he must be alive when it is done. I have--” he stopped for a long moment. “You know I have some of Wei Ying’s notes. I have the notes on how the first half was -- how it was originally planned. We need a -- we need a body. Alive.” Jiang Cheng could hear the thrum of his angry grief freshly called to life beneath his halting words.
“That’s going to take some demonic cultivation,” Xue Yang said, smiling despite the thin line of red at his throat from Sandu, and the blood showing on his teeth from injuries that Lan Wangji had inflicted upon him. “Need some pointers?”
Jiang Cheng leaned back, leaving his sword in place but without pressure behind it. “It has to be destroyed,” he said. “And if it takes him with it, that’s no loss. But the first time --” He swallowed hard. “There was backlash.”
“I’ll set up a containment array,” Lan Wangji said. “It was supposed to be done the first time but I understand that there may have been a time constraint.” His voice was neutral but Jiang Cheng felt his shoulders rising. He relaxed them with an effort.
“Yes,” he said, and refused to elaborate. “Will you set up the array? I’m not letting my eyes off this snake.”
Xue Yang pouted at him, and started to say something, but Jiang Cheng pressed Sandu deeper. “Shut up,” he said. “I don’t want to hear it.”
Lan Wangji was busy around him. Jiang Cheng could feel the movements more than he could see them -- it was full night, still, and he was focused on watching Xue Yang for last-minute desperate tricks. Finally, Lan Wangji said, “It’s nearly ready. Lay the amulet on his chest as you go and open wounds at his temple and right wrist.”
Jiang Cheng rose, carefully flicking Sandu without disturbing the ropes that bound Xue Yang to the ground, and rested the amulet on his chest. Xue Yang’s perpetual cocky grin had vanished, and he thrashed against the ropes that held him.
“Look, do you want information?” he said, sounding desperate. “I can tell you everything, you'll need to take me alive, you won’t ever take them down without me. They told me to do everything, I’m their disciple, they’ve been looking for demonic cultivators. They made me do it all!”
Jiang Cheng looked at him with great skepticism. “Dying men will say anything,” he said.
“I have details,” said Xue Yang. “They had me kill the He sect, and the Changs, and many, many mediocre people. They told me what to do. I’m just a kid, not yet twenty,” he added. “I don’t know any better. They took me in off the streets.”
“We were younger than you when we went to war,” said Jiang Cheng, looking down at him in disgust.
He backed away, and Lan Wangji finished the final point of the array behind him. He drew Bichen and sliced his own palm, drawing a talisman with the blood. Jiang Cheng recognized the basic form of it, a curse-destroying circle, with some embellishments that Lan Wangji had even managed to capture in a style of handwriting that Jiang Cheng knew well.
“Should we believe any of this?” he asked, and Lan Wangji just shook his head.
When Lan Wangji pressed the talisman to the ground just within the array, quickly withdrawing his hand, the amulet began to smoke, the wisps rising to the air but not extending beyond the array that had been prepared. Xue Yang redoubled his struggles and Jiang Cheng watched him carefully. They’d had trouble enough getting him subdued and tied, he wasn’t about to let him run now. But before he could break free and escape, the amulet’s smoke grew thick and solidified around him.
Jiang Cheng could hear him screaming. It was fainter than he might have expected from how close they were -- it sounded like Xue Yang was being dragged away, though he could still faintly see the outline of his body. There was a flash, and a low, ominous thump, and the coiling resentful energy rebounded and cleared.
“Was that it?” Jiang Cheng asked Lan Wangji, who was standing at his side, staring. “Last time it was -- louder.”
“Mn,” said Lan Wangji. “Let the smoke dissipate and we can remove the array to be certain that the amulet and Xue Yang are both gone.”
The smoke took a long time to dissipate. It flowed only upwards, not breaching the sides of the array, and it seemed inclined to linger. As it went, it became clear that a man’s body remained, and Jiang Cheng exchanged a disappointed glance with Lan Wangji. It hadn’t worked, then, or had only partially. They waited patiently until the smoke was gone before opening the array.
When they approached him, it was clear: the man lying on the ground was not Xue Yang. It was Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Cheng stared at Lan Wangji, who seemed to be torn between staring back and staring at Wei Wuxian’s unconscious body. “What did you do?” he asked. He sparked Zidian, at the ready.
“No,” said Lan Wangji. “Don’t strike.”
Jiang Cheng eased back his fist, and his alarm, and thought it through. “Do you think it tore apart his soul when he destroyed part of it, and somehow kept it stored in the other half?”
Lan Wangji nodded. “If he’s back as himself,” he clarified. “If he’s not --”
Jiang Cheng nodded back. “I’ll handle it,” he promised grimly. An idea occurred to him. “Could you use that spiritual compass?” he asked.
Lan Wangji looked at him, startled. Then he patted his chest for a moment, drawing a small wooden case out. He slid it open, and the dial twitched, as though stabilizing, then stilled. Lan Wangji shook his head, then put the case back away.
Jiang Cheng took a deep breath. No resentful energy. No way to know if he’d come back for real except for --
He strode forward and pushed Wei Wuxian’s shoulder like he used to do in the mornings when he was going to be late for breakfast. “Hey, idiot, wake up,” he said, then pulled back to observe the effects.
It was like being transported back in time; Wei Wuxian made a face and smacked his lips, just as he used to do. “G’way,” he said through a yawn.
“Wake up, please, Wei Ying,” said Lan Wangji quietly, and Wei Wuxian’s eyes shot open. He tried to sit up but quickly discovered that he could not, as his body was bound tightly to the ground, just as Xue Yang’s had been. His eyes darted from Lan Wangji to Jiang Cheng, and he looked around wildly.
“What -- Why -- Where--” he stammered. “Let me up, Jiang Cheng, this isn’t funny. A-Yuan’s in trouble, I have to save them, I have to go --”
“A-Yuan’s fine,” interrupted Jiang Cheng. “Don’t worry about that.”
“Do you know who you are?” asked Lan Wangji quietly.
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Lan Zhan, it’s me, it’s Wei Wuxian, how could I forget who I am?”
“How indeed,” said Jiang Cheng darkly, and the cheerful laugh sputtered out.
“So ill-tempered, Jiang Cheng,” said Wei Wuxian. “Always poking bruises. Why did you mention A-Yuan, how do you know how he is?”
“He’s sleeping in the tent over there,” said Jiang Cheng. “I checked on him before this started. Tell me something only Wei Wuxian would know.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Do you remember the time Nie Huaisang came to visit Lotus Pier and brought such a stack of pornography that you couldn’t train for--”
“That’s enough,” said Jiang Cheng. He turned to Lan Wangji. “You see if you can get anything out of him.”
“How did we kill the Xuanwu of Slaughter?” Lan Wangji asked Wei Wuxian. “Please describe it to me.”
“Well--” Wei Wuxian looked flummoxed. “I went inside the shell, and found a sword to stab with from inside, while you used Chord Assassination from outside -- look, why are you both acting like this, what’s happening?” He frowned. “Why are you together like this? Have I been missing again?”
Lan Wangji put his hand to his face and turned away. After a long moment, when it became clear that he wasn’t going to say anything, Jiang Cheng said, “You’ve been dead for three years.”
“Dead!” said Wei Wuxian. He flopped his head back and stared at the dark sky. “I don’t feel dead,” he said after a long minute. “I don’t remember being dead.”
“How does being dead feel?” asked Jiang Cheng, and that silenced him once more. Jiang Cheng addressed his next question to Lan Wangji. “Are we agreed that it’s him?”
Lan Wangji nodded, his hand back down at his side and his face calm once more. He gestured and the ropes fell away. Wei Wuxian tried to get up but sagged down when he tried to rest weight on his arm. “What did you do to me?” he asked, again lying flat on the forest floor. “I’m as weak as a kitten.”
Lan Wangji approached him carefully. “We’re not sure what happened,” he said, carefully picking up his hand to examine his meridians, sending a burst of qi. “Or whether you have your own body or have somehow taken the one that was here to use as your own.”
“Oh! Oh, I can tell you, but I have to test --” Wei Wuxian struggled to sit up, leaning on one elbow. Lan Wangji moved back slightly. He whisked the shape of a talisman in the air, then shot it at Lan Wangji, who looked at the blue string binding them and then back at Wei Wuxian. Jiang Cheng hadn’t seen it before but it definitely looked like his sort of invention. “Ah,” Wei Wuxian said, sagging back. “It’s the latter, then. He was a cultivator? This person whose body I’ve taken?”
“Why would you know from just that?” Jiang Cheng said suspiciously. “Was there a risk that the amulet would have done something to it? Was there something wrong with your cultivation in your own body?”
Alarm flashed across Wei Wuxian’s face but he put his face down and fiddled with the string connecting him to Lan Wangji rather than answering. “Don’t worry about it too much, Jiang Cheng,” he said. “Aren’t you happy I’m alive once more? Did you miss your shixiong? I missed you.”
“Shut up,” said Jiang Cheng, and flung himself bodily back, looking away toward the tents. He could hear Lan Wangji quietly murmuring to Wei Wuxian, but his attention was caught by a small movement among the campsite, and he focused on it. After a moment, he made out the shape of Wei Yuan, lingering behind a tent and watching. When he saw that he’d been spotted, he waved, and Jiang Cheng waved back, beckoning him over. Who knew how long he’d been watching, anyway.
“Brace yourself,” he said to Wei Wuxian, but it was Jiang Cheng that Wei Yuan crashed into first, looking up at him.
“What happened, shushu?” he asked. “I heard fighting and so I stayed in my tent, but it was quiet for so long I thought everything was okay, are you okay?”
Jiang Cheng returned his hug, then turned so he could see where Wei Wuxian was staring at him with huge eyes.
“Is this little A-Yuan?” he asked.
Wei Yuan froze, his arms still around Jiang Cheng’s waist, and stared back. Just as the silence was stretching to the point where Jiang Cheng was trying to figure out what to say, just to break it, Wei Yuan cried out and flung himself into Wei Wuxian’s arms. He was crying by the time he got there, and so was Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian kissed his head and rocked back and forth while they cried together. The weakness he had complained about had fled; his fingers were white where they gripped Wei Yuan’s robes.
It was a long, long time before anyone was calm enough to continue speaking. Wei Yuan, who now considered himself to be too old to sit on anyone’s lap, seemed determined to stay where he was, his arms looped around Wei Wuxian’s neck. “How did this baby get so big?” Wei Wuxian demanded. “Lan Wangji, did you do this to me?”
“A-Yuan has been living at Lotus Pier,” said Lan Wangji. “It is there that he has grown so well.”
Wei Wuxian looked at Jiang Cheng, his face open and grateful. It made Jiang Cheng’s stomach twist to look at him so he waved it off like he’d wave off an aggressive beggar at the docks. “He raised himself,” he said gruffly. “He’s a good boy. Don’t make a big deal of it.”
Wei Wuxian smothered a laugh in Wei Yuan’s hair. “Well, okay, but --”
“I said shut up, already,” snapped Jiang Cheng. “What are you going to do now that you’re alive?”
That shut him up. But Wei Wuxian had always recovered quickly. “Ah, Jiang Cheng, I’ve been alive for twenty minutes! Give a man a moment to breathe! I don’t even know if I have any money, what will I do in this world without money?” He looked at Lan Wangji. “Will you take care of me, Lan Zhan?” He might as well have been batting his eyes and Jiang Cheng looked away in embarrassed disgust.
“I will take care of Wei Ying,” said Lan Wangji, and disarmed Wei Wuxian’s attempt at flirtation fully. Jiang Cheng looked back in time to see his flustered blush, and rolled his eyes.
“First we should go to bed,” he said. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m exhausted.”
“Yes! How are you still awake, Lan Zhan?” asked Wei Wuxian. “It must be far past the Lan bedtime!”
“We will describe it all to you tomorrow,” said Lan Wangji, and pulled both Wei Wuxian and Wei Yuan to their feet, though Wei Yuan still clung tightly to his hands. “Wanyin is correct, we must sleep.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows shot up, and he looked from Lan Wangji to Jiang Cheng, although for what reason, Jiang Cheng couldn’t guess. But however startled he had been, it didn’t compare to his face when Wei Yuan leaned against him and said, somewhat sleepily, “I’m so happy to have a father again.”
Wei Wuxian stumbled, and Lan Wangji caught him with a quick hand under his arm.
“Ah,” said Wei Wuxian. “Father?”
“Yes,” said Jiang Cheng, feeling a spark of playful mischief that he hadn’t felt in -- years. “Why don’t you start calling him baba instead of Xian-gege, now, Wei Yuan.”
Wei Wuxian swayed even harder into Lan Wangji’s side but said nothing, just looked back at a beaming Wei Yuan.
When they reached the tents, Wei Yuan went back to bed with one last squeeze around Wei Wuxian’s waist, which he returned tightly. After he had crawled inside, Wei Wuxian turned to Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng with wild eyes.
“Is this the same world I left?” he said, low. “Is my memory truly that bad?”
Jiang Cheng smiled, still enjoying Wei Wuxian’s confusion, but Lan Wangji put a hand on his shoulder and pulled him a few paces away from the tent’s opening. “We know that you are not his father,” he said.
“Then why --” Wei Wuxian gestured wildly.
“If he was to come to Lotus Pier and become a disciple, he needed a new name,” Jiang Cheng said. “And you were dead, what did you care about your reputation?”
“But he’s not my son,” Wei Wuxian argued. “He had a family of his own, I cared for him but as an older brother, not a father.”
“Well, we can't go around calling him a Wen,” Jiang Cheng snapped. “So you'd better get used to being called baba or just go die again.”
“Perhaps we can discuss it further in the morning,” said Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian made a face at Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng scowled back. “Fine,” he said. “You’re still tied together, he might as well sleep in with you.”
Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian looked down at their wrists, still tied with a string of spiritual energy. Jiang Cheng didn’t wait for their reactions, turning to find his own tent for at least a couple hours of deeply needed sleep.
In the morning, as they broke down camp, Wei Yuan stuck to Wei Wuxian like a burr. More subtly, Lan Wangji kept finding reasons to walk past the two of them and exchange a word or two, staying close.
Before they left, Jiang Cheng guided their small party past the site where they had fought the corpses and brought back Wei Wuxian, intending to cleanse the area and dispose of things properly.
They were startled to see a cultivator there already, who had gotten so close without them realizing it, and was studying the bodies closely. At their approach, he rose and turned. He wore white robes with no clan insignia, nothing distinctive on his person at all.
He saluted and Jiang Cheng returned the gesture, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian a beat behind, Wei Yuan two steps behind. “Were you attacked in the night?” he asked, indicating the corpses.
“No,” said Jiang Cheng, at the same time that Lan Wangji said, “yes.” Jiang Cheng turned to look at Lan Wangji, who seemed to be indicating something with a significant eyebrow. But Jiang Cheng couldn’t imagine what it could be, and he broke out of their brief staring match first.
“We were attacked by fierce corpses in the night,” he said. “We defeated them, as you can see.”
The rogue cultivator cocked his head in question. “Did anything strange happen?”
Jiang Cheng avoided looking at Wei Wuxian only through strength of will. “Nothing,” he said.
“It’s just that there’s this array--” The rogue cultivator started and Jiang Cheng spoke over him.
“Who are you, anyway? What are you doing here, so close to our campsite?” He feigned a cough, and used it as cover to blow a breath of spiritual energy behind the man in white, stirring the dust at the edge of the array to smudge the edges. Wei Wuxian, next to him, started to laugh under his breath, and Jiang Cheng elbowed him in the ribs to shut him up. “Well?”
“I am Xiao Xingchen,” he said with another bow. “I am tracking a most notorious criminal, and I think he may have harassed your camp last night. But if you did not encounter him, I will continue on my path.”
Jiang Cheng saluted. “We wish you luck on your task,” he said, then took Wei Wuxian above the elbow, not gently, to start the group walking toward Caiyi. He snagged Wei Yuan’s sleeve as well as he went past, tugging them both along as he went. Lan Wangji followed, continuing with his inability to move more than a few steps away from Wei Wuxian even without the string binding their wrists.
“Thank you,” Xiao Xingchen called after them.
Wei Wuxian permitted the grip only until they were out of sight, before pulling away with a laugh. “What was that disaster?” he asked. “Jiang Cheng, truly, you have not gotten any better at lying than you were as a child.”
“We can’t exactly go around telling people what happened,” said Jiang Cheng, glaring at both him and Lan Wangji.
“It was clear an altercation had occurred,” said Lan Wangji. “It would be useless to lie about it.”
“Next time I’ll let you do the talking,” snapped Jiang Cheng. Lan Wangji glanced at him then looked away, as close to an eyeroll as Jiang Cheng had ever seen from him. “Where are we going from here? Are you expected back in Cloud Recesses today?” Lan Wangji only nodded, so Jiang Cheng continued. “How are we going to explain this?” He shoved Wei Wuxian.
“I'm Yiling-laozu, I can appear where I like,” said Wei Wuxian, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“Yeah, and they can try to kill you again for it, so think again,” said Jiang Cheng, and Wei Wuxian’s smile vanished. “People don’t like it when dead men just wake up, and really we should have thought it over just a bit more before trying to destroy the seal in the middle of the night. I’d rather not explain that to Zewu-jun if I don’t have to, thanks.”
“I will explain,” said Lan Wangji without elaborating.
Jiang Cheng waited, and when no further explanation was forthcoming, he asked, “And what, exactly, will you say?”
Lan Wangji didn’t respond but Wei Yuan piped up. “I’ll say I brought him back because I missed him so hard for so long that he finally got tired of me asking and just came back to tell me to stop bothering the spirits.”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “I like it, annoyed back to life from too many prayers. Did you burn incense and paper money for me, A-Yuan?” His voice was light and teasing, as though he was joking. Jiang Cheng experienced a very pressing desire to punch him right in the face, or stab him again, perhaps.
“Of course, baba,” said Wei Yuan, sounding perfectly serious.
Wei Wuxian had no response to that. The rest of the walk to Caiyi was quiet.
When they arrived at a tavern that Lan Wangji had deemed acceptable, the hostess took one look at them and led them to a small private room without a word.
Lan Wangji broke the silence first. “We must tell my brother the full truth,” he said. “I can think of no time in which withholding information from him has ended well. If he sees a need to create further stories, he will tell us.” He pressed his lips together quickly, then added, “We may be subject to punishment for our actions. I see now that they were not well-considered, although I cannot regret the results.”
Jiang Cheng scowled at him. “You’ve only just recovered,” he said. “Besides, you were acting as part of the Jiang sect, it’s up to me if you should be punished, isn’t it? You were on my night hunt at my invitation.”
“Recovered from what?” asked Wei Wuxian, looking at Lan Wangji.
They both ignored him, Jiang Cheng glaring and Lan Wangji calmly looking right back at him, and Wei Wuxian leaned down toward Wei Yuan. “What was Lan Zhan recovering from, A-Yuan?”
“From the other punishments,” said Wei Yuan. “He was hurt really badly when he came home with us, he wouldn’t ever play with me, it was terrible.”
Lan Wangji looked away at that, conceding the point to Jiang Cheng in order to intervene with Wei Wuxian, who was looking like he might start interrogating a small child at any moment. “Wei Ying, it is not important. I am fine.”
“Were you punished because of me?” Wei Wuxian asked, sounding like he knew the answer very well, and he buried his face in Wei Yuan’s hair at Lan Wangji’s slight nod of confirmation.
“You should be used to that by now,” said Jiang Cheng, and Wei Wuxian lifted his face up in protest. “What, I’ve lost count now of how many times Lan-xiong has been beaten because you led him into trouble.” Wei Wuxian silently mouthed Lan-xiong? to himself but Jiang Cheng ignored him and went on. “What I want to know is, our actions to destroy it aside, how did that person get the seal in the first place?”
“Many of Wei Ying’s things were left unguarded on the Burial Mounds,” said Lan Wangji. “Did you have notes on how it was created?” he asked Wei Wuxian. “I have the notes on how you had planned to destroy it, as well as a few more that were unrelated, but I know you had done a great deal more work while you were living there.”
“I don’t remember,” said Wei Wuxian. “He shouldn’t have been able to wield it if he had only half, he must have done his own work to create the other side. Perhaps he was especially gifted.”
“Or especially well-financed,” said Jiang Cheng grimly, recalling the man’s references to well-connected cultivators who had taken him in and given him instructions.
Lan Wangji looked at him, eyebrows slightly raised.
“I’m not saying it,” Jiang Cheng said. “But you both know who was obsessed with having it before.”
Lan Wangji nodded slightly.
They were interrupted then by the arrival of food and drinks, although Jiang Cheng had not noticed a moment when Lan Wangji might have ordered for them, unless he had done it silently. He stared at Lan Wangji, who noticed him and looked away, smiling at one corner of his mouth. Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes and looked at Wei Wuxian, who was looking from him to Lan Wangji with narrowed eyes.
“What?” asked Jiang Cheng. “What stupid thing are you thinking about now?”
“No respect for your elders, Jiang Cheng?” asked Wei Wuxian lightly.
“You’ve been dead, I’ve caught up,” he said. “You have to talk to me with respect now.”
“No speaking during meals,” Lan Wangji reminded them both, and they turned their attention to eating.
The trip from Caiyi to Cloud Recesses was always a long one. Before they were halfway to the gate, Jiang Cheng could tell Wei Yuan was struggling to keep up with the quick pace that Lan Wangji had set. He took the boy’s hand and drew him away from Wei Wuxian.
“Go ahead of us,” he said to Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian. “We know the way. I want to see what Wei Yuan has learned while we have been apart.” Lan Wangji nodded and took Wei Wuxian by the arm, which Jiang Cheng tried not to notice.
Jiang Cheng allowed his pace to slacken as he and Wei Yuan walked behind. “Have you been practicing your archery?” he asked.
Wei Yuan looked a little guilty. “Not as much as at home, shushu,” he admitted. “I’ve been learning the GusuLan sword forms with the Lan juniors but they don’t do as much work with the bow here at this age.”
“It is fine to be diverse in your talents,” Jiang Cheng said. “You do not have to practice everything at once.”
Wei Yuan brightened. “Thank you, shushu! They’re very hardworking here at the Cloud Recesses, I’ve been learning a lot of different things.” He went on to describe the other juniors at the sect, which Jiang Cheng had to admit to himself that he didn’t quite follow due to the rush of unfamiliar names.
When Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian had completely gone from their view, Wei Yuan stopped in the middle of a sentence. Jiang Cheng looked down at him, and his newly serious face. “Shushu, is Xian-gege really my father?”
Jiang Cheng took a second to be alarmed at how perceptive children could be. “Why do you ask?” he said.
“I never called him baba before that I can remember,” Wei Yuan said thoughtfully. “I mean, I know I have his name, and I call you shushu because you’re his younger brother, but why would I call my father gege?”
Jiang Cheng thought for a long second about what to do. Wei Yuan was still quite young, but he had proven himself to be wise beyond his years. “Can I trust you with the truth?” he asked, and Wei Yuan drew himself to his full height.
“Yes,” he said passionately.
“You are correct,” Jiang Cheng said. “He is not your father. But we must all pretend that he is because of a war that ended when you were very small. You must act as though he is at all times in front of anyone but myself and your Lan-gege, even if they pretend that they are in on the secret. Do you understand?”
Wei Yuan took his time thinking that over. Jiang Cheng gave him silence to do it in, and focused on the walk.
“I understand,” Wei Yuan said finally. “It’s for my safety. Right, shushu?”
“Yes,” said Jiang Cheng. “And if he makes a disappointing father in any way, tell me, and I’ll dunk him in the lake.”
Wei Yuan laughed and the somber mood was broken. He spent the rest of the walk begging to hear stories about Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian’s childhood, which Jiang Cheng tried to provide without thinking too hard about anything past their time as teenagers in the Cloud Recesses.
When they arrived at the gate, the sentries only nodded at them and allowed them to pass. Wei Yuan greeted them both politely, by name, and they smiled warmly at him as he went. The trip up the stone steps was a lot easier than the last time Jiang Cheng had taken it with Wei Yuan, and, thinking of it, he said, “The last time I was here with you, you made me carry you up these stairs, you know.”
Wei Yuan looked at him. “I don’t remember that!” he said. “When were you here before? When was I here before?”
“It was right at the end of the war,” Jiang Cheng said. “You were small, still, and your Lan-gege hadn’t come to Lotus Pier yet, so I brought you to visit him. I wouldn’t let you stay here, though, so he had to come to you instead.”
Wei Yuan looked pleased. “It was kind of you to let him stay, shushu,” he said earnestly.
“I don’t know about that,” said Jiang Cheng. “Anyway, he’s better now, so it doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Will he be punished again?” Wei Yuan asked. “He’s only just gotten better from the last time.”
Jiang Cheng sighed. “I hope not.”
At the top of the stairs, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian had stopped to wait for them, Wei Wuxian having draped himself dramatically against a support beam and Lan Wangji standing straight-backed, one hand behind his back, looking quietly at the calm Cloud Recesses while Wei Wuxian chattered at him.
They had scarcely arrived when Lan Xichen came out to greet them, wreathed in smiles.
“Wangji, you’re looking very well,” Lan Xichen greeted him cheerfully. “You seem much happier since you and Wei Yuan left on your little adventure, I suppose it went...” he broke off as he caught sight of Wei Wuxian and his attempted casual lean. “...well,” he finished slowly.
Wei Wuxian waved a little. “Hi, Lan-gongzi, long time no see, I guess.”
“We have much to discuss, brother,” said Lan Wangji.
“Yes, I imagine,” said Lan Xichen. “Won’t you come with me?”
Lan Wangji fell into step with his brother, and the rest of them followed behind. He led them to the hanshi, and prepared tea for them. When the tea was ready, Lan Xichen handed the first cup to his brother, who immediately turned to carefully deliver it to Wei Wuxian. Their hands brushed and they froze like that for a long moment.
Lan Xichen smiled at Jiang Cheng as though they were sharing a joke of some kind, and Jiang Cheng really wished very much that he had stayed in Caiyi. Or Lotus Pier. He couldn’t help but scowl, and when Lan Xichen only smiled more, he looked away entirely. When Wei Yuan giggled, Jiang Cheng poked him in the ribs.
“Wei Wuxian,” said Lan Xichen. “It is good to see you so well after such a long time.”
“It is good to be well,” said Wei Wuxian, who had finally claimed the teacup and looked away from Lan Wangji. “For me it has felt like no time at all has passed. I just feel healthier and more well-rested than I remember being before my death.”
“May I ask how it is that you are alive?” asked Lan Xichen, and as annoyed as Jiang Cheng often was by his unruffled calm, he couldn’t help but admire it now. Lan Xichen sipped his tea as if exchanging passing pleasantries.
“Perhaps you should ask our brothers,” said Wei Wuxian. Lan Xichen looked between Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng.
“You said you would explain,” said Jiang Cheng. “So explain.” He tugged Wei Yuan a little closer, and he leaned in, resting his head on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder as he listened avidly. He recalled that they had not yet fully explained the details to Wei Yuan; no wonder the boy was so intent.
Lan Wangji inclined his head in acknowledgement. “We were attacked last night by a demonic cultivator wielding a spiritual tool of Wei Ying’s invention. In our attempt to destroy it, the cultivator vanished and Wei Wuxian appeared. I would like to confirm my theory in the library, but my working theory is that our attacker’s body was used to create a facsimile of Wei Wuxian, as it was this same tool whose partial destruction was the cause of his death originally.”
Wei Wuxian looked sharply at him. “Facsimile?”
“Your scars,” said Lan Wangji simply. He took hold of Wei Wuxian’s hand and gently turned his arm and slid up his sleeve. “Here, on your wrist, you had a nick. It’s gone.” He let go of Wei Wuxian’s hand and reached up to touch his cheek. “Next to your eye, a thin mark. Can you not feel places that you were greatly injured? Do the marks remain?”
Wei Wuxian’s hand fell to his lower dantian, pressing in. “That explains it,” he said. “Yes, Lan Zhan, I would say your theory is correct.” He laughed a little.
“Explains what?” asked Lan Xichen, leaning in. “This is all very fascinating, Wangji. You must write it up, I am sure it is well worth studying. In the meantime, welcome back to the Cloud Recesses, Wei Wuxian.”
“You do not find fault in our actions?” asked Lan Wangji, almost challengingly.
“I would certainly be interested to hear more about the attack and the demonic cultivator, as well as the actions you took in order to obtain these results,” said Lan Xichen. “But how can I regret something that has made my brother look like this?”
Lan Wangji looked away, and Wei Wuxian laughed, loudly and clearly without understanding. Jiang Cheng understood, and desperately wished that he didn’t.
Lan Xichen went on. “I had planned to leave for Qinghe this afternoon, Wangji. Would you mind if I told Mingjue about this? I would appreciate his insight. Perhaps you and Wei Wuxian could remain here and research your theory, and begin to prepare the report.”
“I will accompany you,” said Jiang Cheng. He looked at Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian and felt his mouth twist. “A-Yuan, will you stay at Cloud Recesses or come with us?”
“I’ll stay with baba,” said Wei Yuan immediately, and Jiang Cheng felt his stomach twist with a presentiment he was loath to examine further.
“That’s fine,” he said brusquely. “I’ll see you in the morning. Behave yourself.” He looked at Lan Xichen. “When would you like to leave?”
“If you’ve eaten?” Lan Xichen paused and Jiang Cheng nodded. “Then I am ready now if you would like.”
Jiang Cheng stood up, and Lan Xichen rose gracefully as well.
“You, behave yourself,” he said to Wei Wuxian. “Don’t get kicked out of here again before I get back.”
Wei Wuxian smiled sunnily back at him. “It’ll be fine,” he said, and Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes at him.
“Will it?” he asked darkly. He tapped Wei Yuan gently on the head and turned to leave.
“You’re not going to say goodbye to Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian asked.
Jiang Cheng looked at Lan Wangji, who looked blandly back at him. Then he looked at Wei Wuxian again. “No,” he said, and left.
It was a pleasant flight; the weather was fair, and Jiang Cheng was frankly grateful to have a day away from Wei Wuxian so that he could gather his thoughts about his brother’s return in peace.
The Unclean Realm was a forbidding place to visit, but he often enjoyed his trips there. Nie Huaisang had been a good friend since they were young, and Nie Mingjue had grown on him over the years of sect business. He was not a sworn brother by any means, but he flattered himself that he was welcome there.
When they arrived, however, the reception they received was underwhelming. A distracted-looking servant greeted them and showed them to a small hall to await their hosts, and there they waited. And waited. No one came, even to offer tea, until finally Lan Xichen stood. “Something’s wrong,” he said. “Mingjue would never allow us to be forgotten if all were well.”
Jiang Cheng raised a wary brow. He liked Nie Mingjue well enough, but he was not on terms that allowed for him to wander the halls of his home uninvited. The rules were different for sworn brothers, it seemed, as Lan Xichen seemed determined to seek him out.
“Come,” he said. “If it was just one poorly trained servant, someone will find us soon enough and we’ll be remembered. If something’s wrong, we may be needed.” He beckoned for Jiang Cheng to join him, and Jiang Cheng obliged.
The halls were quiet and still. Lan Xichen led a wandering path through the main rooms, and they saw no one. It was not until he led them to the training grounds that they saw the source of the problem: everyone was gathered there, quietly milling around.
Lan Xichen broke into a loping trot, just under a run. Jiang Cheng had often seen it among the Lan disciples; it seemed to be a good way to get around fast without breaking the Cloud Recesses prohibition against running. He followed, trying to get a sense for the cause of the commotion.
It was Nie Mingjue, sitting on the ground, looking very pale and very ill-tempered.
“I’m fine, dammit,” he shouted hoarsely. “Get back to work and leave me alone!” Someone brought him a cup of water, another person brought him a cloth to wipe his face. He accepted them ungraciously, then waved the people away.
“Brother, how are you?” asked Lan Xichen, once he was close enough to be heard.
Nie Mingjue craned his neck to see through the crowd surrounding him and groaned. “Did visitors arrive and need to show themselves around?” he asked the air. “Are all of you completely useless?”
A handful of servants split off from the crowd, slinking reluctantly back inside the main house.
Lan Xichen knelt down and took his hand, sending a stream of qi into his wrist. “Is it worse than usual today?” he asked.
“Mind your business,” said Nie Mingjue, snatching back his hand. “Help me up. I’m fine now, let’s go have tea and you can tell me why you’re here.”
Lan Xichen helped him to his feet, but beyond that, Nie Mingjue refused to accept help, walking alone ahead of them to the house. Once they were settled around a table, Jiang Cheng noticed that his color seemed to be improving, and his hands were steady as he prepared the tea.
“What brings you here today, Xichen?” asked Nie Mingjue.
“It seems that we have had a spontaneous resurrection,” said Lan Xichen, accepting his tea and taking a calm sip.
Nie Mingjue blinked. “That doesn’t happen every day,” he said, in a dry understatement.
“No,” agreed Lan Xichen. “I was startled, but then, I saw him before I got the explanation, and really, it took me quite aback.”
Nie Mingjue sat forward. “Is this someone we need to be concerned about? Wen Ruohan, one of that sort?”
“I don’t think so,” said Lan Xichen thoughtfully. He turned to Jiang Cheng, who had been carefully holding his tongue. “Jiang-zongzhu? Do you think that Wei Wuxian poses a danger to us now? You would know the best among us, I suppose.”
Jiang Cheng looked at Nie Mingjue, who had paused with his teacup halfway to his mouth at hearing the name. “I really cannot begin to predict what Wei Wuxian will do,” he admitted. “Currently he seems unlikely to abscond with a pack of war criminals and take up radish farming, but I would have thought that seemed unlikely five years ago as well.”
“Things are different now than five years ago,” Nie Mingjue said. “Has he seen--” He waved his hand to indicate a small person, and Jiang Cheng nodded.
“He was surprised to learn that he had been acknowledged, but seemed happy enough.” Jiang Cheng twisted a smile; he was feeling darkly amused now, more than anything. “I suppose a reputation matters less once you’ve been dead for awhile.”
“It’s family that matters,” said Nie Mingjue. “Now that I know how it was, I can see things differently. Did he tell anyone at the time?”
Jiang Cheng pressed his lips into a tight line and shook his head. “Nobody.”
Nie Mingjue nodded. There was a light tap on the door, then it slid open. Nie Huaisang let himself inside, and Nie Mingjue sighed.
“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang said, his voice light but his face very intent. “I heard something very interesting just now.”
“What’s that, Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue said. “Won’t you come and have tea with my guests?” His tone was a little pointed but Jiang Cheng watched Nie Huaisang glance at them and dismiss them utterly.
“Once you tell me why you were out in the training field this afternoon even though you know you weren’t feeling well at lunch,” said Nie Huaisang, crossing his arms.
“I was feeling better,” said Nie Mingjue. Jiang Cheng hid his face behind his teacup in order to feel privately amused for a moment at his sulky tone.
“Oh! Well, if you were feeling better, that’s fine,” said Nie Huaisang. “And I expect it went perfectly well and absolutely nobody ate dirt in front of the entire force?”
“Sit down, Huaisang,” growled Nie Mingjue. “Your point is taken.”
“Is it, da-ge?” said Nie Huaisang, gracefully folding himself onto the seat next to Jiang Cheng. “Is it?”
“Is A-Yao still playing faithfully for you?” asked Lan Xichen. “The Song of Clarity should be helping these incidents subside.” Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes, looking at Nie Mingjue in light of this new information. Today’s collapse had not been an isolated incident, then. The Nie inclination to qi deviation was upon him. Once he looked, he could see the tremor, the pallor. No wonder Nie Huaisang was so protective.
“He’s coming,” said Nie Mingjue, with a sour twist to his mouth. “He’s taught Huaisang the song as well, he plays when Guangyao can’t come.”
Lan Xichen lit up. “Huaisang, that’s wonderful of you. Won’t you play for us all this evening, and show off your skill? I would love to hear it.”
Nie Huaisang snapped his fan open and hid behind it, blushing. “I wouldn’t dare, er-ge,” he said.
“No, no, you should,” said Jiang Cheng. “Nice to know you can study something when you want to.” He nudged Nie Huaisang, who elbowed him back. It almost devolved into a scuffle unbefitting a sect leader before Jiang Cheng recalled himself and sat up. He cleared his throat. “I know I could certainly use some Clarity after what’s happened.”
Nie Huaisang visibly perked up. “Oh, what’s happened?”
Jiang Cheng looked straight at him. “Wei Wuxian’s come back to life,” he said, without flinching, and he watched Nie Huaisang’s mouth fall open in shock.
“My feelings exactly,” murmured Lan Xichen. “So won’t you play, Huaisang?”
“I’ll--get my flute,” said Nie Huaisang, shaking his head as if the information would sink into his understanding better that way. He floated out the door, fanning himself as he went.
When he returned a few moments later, he seemed to have reconciled the information and appeared quite calm. “Shall I begin?” he asked, and his brother nodded, and moved into a meditation posture. Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng followed suit.
The song was lovely, and Jiang Cheng let it wash over himself, relaxing into it. Nie Huaisang hit one phrase that put his teeth on edge, and he felt himself taking a deeper breath, breaking his meditation, before the song resumed its purity and focus. But Lan Xichen also seemed disturbed. “Huaisang, stop, you’ve got it wrong there,” he said. Huaisang lowered his flute to listen.
Lan Xichen manifested his xiao. “From the phrase --” he played the part that had so unsettled Jiang Cheng. His version seemed calmer, more peaceful, and Huaisang repeated it.
“That’s not it, though,” said Nie Huaisang. “That’s not how A-Yao taught me, I’m sure of it.”
Lan Xichen smiled at him. “It’s a very difficult piece of music,” he said. “It’s very understandable to have missed such a small portion.”
“I didn’t--” protested Nie Huaisang, before stopping to draw a breath. “Yes, of course, er-ge,” he said, bowing his head. “Will you finish the piece for us, and I will refresh my knowledge? Please forgive this one’s error.”
“I would be glad to,” said Lan Xichen. “Thank you, Huaisang. I am sure your brother appreciates the efforts you have made.”
Nie Mingjue, who had maintained his meditation posture, nodded slightly. He was paler than before, and seemed more unwell than when the song had begun.
Lan Xichen played the piece through, and at the end, Nie Mingjue seemed much soothed. Nie Huaisang, by comparison, had his lips pressed together tightly, and he seemed to be on the verge of tears. When Lan Xichen lowered his xiao, Nie Huaisang bowed. “Thank you, er-ge,” he said, his voice a little shaky. He grabbed Jiang Cheng by the elbow. “Will you help da-ge to bed?” he asked Lan Xichen. “I’m going to speak with Jiang-xiong more about Wei Wuxian.”
“Of course,” said Lan Xichen, whose peaceful smile seemed even more beatific in the wake of the song. He patted Nie Mingjue’s arm, and as he started to rouse from his meditative trance, Nie Huaisang hauled Jiang Cheng away with surprising strength.
Twice Jiang Cheng started to speak, but Nie Huaisang pinched his arm at first, then said, low, “Not out here. Wait.”
Finally they reached Nie Huaisang’s private quarters, and Nie Huaisang flung them through the doors, and slapped a hasty silence talisman against them when they closed. “Jin Guangyao is trying to kill my brother,” he said.
Jiang Cheng, who had been braced for a round of questions about Wei Wuxian, was floored for a long minute.
“What?” he finally managed.
“That’s exactly how he taught me the song, I swear it. I wouldn’t make mistakes, not about da-ge’s life. Why is he teaching me the song the wrong way if it’s not meant to hurt him?” Nie Huaisang was pacing the room, then turned and pointed at Jiang Cheng. “What do you know about musical cultivation?”
“Nothing,” admitted Jiang Cheng. “You’re sure you didn’t just transpose some notes?”
Nie Huaisang’s eyes nearly glowed with anger. “I’m sure,” he said.
“Okay, okay,” said Jiang Cheng, raising his hands. “What do you want to do? It’s one thing to throw him out of the sect when he was lowly, but Jin Guangshan recognizes him now. If you accuse him of anything, you’ll have the whole Jin sect at your gates.”
“I don’t know,” said Nie Huaisang. “I can’t prove anything, and even er-ge doesn’t believe me. I need to know more about what he’s up to.”
“Come back with me to the Cloud Recesses,” offered Jiang Cheng. “I’m going back in the morning, you can check the library for texts on musical cultivation. Maybe the phrase he switched has some other meaning, and he was trying to make the song more powerful.”
“Ugh, homework,” muttered Nie Huaisang. “The things I do for da-ge. Fine,” he added. “Is that where Wei Wuxian is holed up? How’s he alive again, anyway?”
Jiang Cheng sighed and threw himself onto a comfortable sofa. “Do you have any liquor stashed away in here? It’s a long story.”
Nie Huaisang grinned at him and went to his wardrobe. “Do I have any liquor? Get comfortable, A-Cheng, and get talking.” He emerged from between sets of robes with two bottles, and handed one to Jiang Cheng.
“Last night, Lan Wangji and I were on the way to Gusu, near Moling, and we were camping with A-Yuan--” Jiang Cheng started.
The next morning, Jiang Cheng woke much earlier than he might have liked, and his mouth tasted like wine and regret. He hadn’t made it to whatever guest room might have been prepared for him -- he was curled up on the floor of Nie Huaisang’s room, his arm curled around a throw pillow and a sunbeam directly in his face.
“Sorry,” said Nie Huaisang, not sounding remotely sorry. He was already up and dressed, stepping quietly around the room. He flicked the curtain, letting a shadow fall across Jiang Cheng’s face. “I wanted to check on da-ge this morning before he decided to get up and go train. You can go to the hall for breakfast whenever, do you know where it is from here?”
Jiang Cheng sat up and squinted at him. “Probably?” he ventured.
“Good enough. See you there.” Nie Huaisang swirled out of the room, leaving quiet behind him.
When he finally made his way to breakfast, Lan Xichen, Nie Mingjue, and Nie Huaisang were all there before him. Nie Mingjue looked greatly improved, and Nie Huaisang’s worried frown had subsided somewhat. As Jiang Cheng sat down, Nie Huaisang was saying, “You’re not going to try to train today, are you, da-ge?”
“Of course he won’t,” said Lan Xichen, ignoring the Lan precept of silence at the table. “I plan to stay and play again today, if I will be permitted, of course,” he added.
Nie Mingjue didn’t look up from his bowl, but Jiang Cheng caught a slight smile tugging at his mouth. “That would be fine, I suppose,” he said.
“That’s wonderful,” said Nie Huaisang. “Then you won’t mind if I go with Wanyin to the Cloud Recesses to say hello to Wei Wuxian, and I won’t need to worry about anyone sneaking outside to try to train, will I?” Nie Mingjue visibly rolled his eyes and Lan Xichen suppressed a smile that looked more like a smirk.
“I’ll keep him out of trouble,” said Lan Xichen. He and Nie Mingjue exchanged a look, and Nie Mingjue coughed.
Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang left immediately after breakfast. The pace Nie Huaisang set didn’t allow for them to speak on the way, and Jiang Cheng let the fresh air blow away the remains of his headache as they went.
When they landed at the gates of Cloud Recesses, the guards barred their way. “Entrance token?” one requested brusquely.
“I’m expected,” said Jiang Cheng.
“No token, no entrance,” the guard insisted. Jiang Cheng felt a pang of disquiet, being at this side of the gate while Wei Yuan remained on the other. Was this how--
“Will this do?” Nie Huaisang said, displaying a small piece of jade. The guard took it and raised his eyebrows.
“Nie-gongzi and his guest are welcome, of course,” he said, and bowed. Jiang Cheng tried not to let his relief show, but from the way Nie Huaisang raised his eyebrows, he thought he had not been successful.
“You’ve had Lan Wangji living at Lotus Pier for three years and you don’t have an entrance token?” Nie Huaisang asked. “I swiped da-ge’s, of course, but I would have thought that he’d give you one at some point.”
Jiang Cheng frowned. “We’re not friends,” he said. “He just wanted to be near A-Yuan. Besides, you said yourself, he was at Lotus Pier, so why should I have a token here?”
Nie Huaisang just hummed thoughtfully in response. Jiang Cheng supposed he was focusing on the steps; he’d always complained about all the stairs at the Cloud Recesses, when they’d been there before. The rest of the climb was quiet, except for Nie Huaisang’s increasingly pained breathing.
It was well into the day when they arrived, and by mutual but unspoken agreement, they went directly to the library. Lan Wangji was there, of course, taking careful notes, and Wei Yuan was sitting nicely next to him. Wei Wuxian was sprawled on the floor, scrolls heaped to his side as he read. When he saw Nie Huaisang, he leapt to his feet.
“Nie-xi--” he started at an excited volume, then stopped himself and started again at a whisper. “Nie-xiong!” They hugged briefly, then Nie Huaisang pushed Wei Wuxian away to look him up and down.
“Look at you,” he said in an exaggerated whisper. “Alive again for a single day and you head straight for the library.”
“I’m very studious,” said Wei Wuxian, making his eyes big. “I love to study, bring me back to life for nothing but libraries, that’s what I always say.”
“I expected to need to drag you out from underneath all the bunnies in the back hills,” said Jiang Cheng sourly. “Have you learned anything?” he asked Lan Wangji, ignoring Wei Wuxian’s low exclamation of The bunnies are still here?
“It seems to be as I had thought,” Lan Wangji said. “I will need you to sit and write your perspective of the events, of course, in case you observed something that I did not. But Wei Ying has been very helpful.” He finally looked up from his notes to look at where Wei Wuxian was still hanging off Nie Huaisang, making exclamations about bunnies.
“Of course,” said Jiang Cheng, claiming a desk of his own. “And I think Nie Huaisang has another research question of his own to pursue -- do you have writings on the Song of Clarity?”
“There,” said Lan Wangji, indicating vaguely with his brush. “Nie-gongzi should be familiar with the section.”
Nie Huaisang looked a bit panicked. “It’s been years,” he said. “Wei-xiong, help me, help me, you know I’m useless at this. Can you help me find what might happen if a person changed a few notes of Clarity? Can it be used to harm or --” he caught Jiang Cheng’s eye “--or create better effects?”
Lan Wangji put down his brush. “Has someone tried to change the Song of Clarity?” he asked. “The song is already as effective as possible, it can only have null or negative effects to change it.”
“Jin Guangyao taught it to me, so that I could play for da-ge,” Nie Huaisang said. “Last night, I played for him and er-ge, and your brother discovered a portion of the song that was not correct.”
“And you did not--” Lan Wangji started.
“I played it as I was taught,” Nie Huaisang said flatly, with no apology for interrupting. “I am not mistaken in this.” His voice had a thread of iron that he did not often show, and Lan Wangji raised an eyebrow in response. “Your brother said we might check the musical notation in the Room of Forbidden Books.”
“Did he?” Lan Wangji asked mildly. Jiang Cheng tried not to look directly at anyone. It was possible that Lan Xichen had given permission at breakfast before Jiang Cheng had arrived.
“He did,” said Nie Huaisang, looking directly at Lan Wangji without a blush.
“Before we go to look,” said Lan Wangji, “We would need a copy of the score of the incorrect portion. Do you have notation that you learned from?”
Nie Huaisang shook his head.
“Then you must play it for us, if you please.” Lan Wangji sat expectantly. Wei Yuan, still sitting at his side and watching with big eyes, imitated his posture.
Nie Huaisang produced his flute and turned his back. “I can’t do it with you looking at me like that, Lan-er-gongzi,” he said. “You can listen but I’m pretending you’re not there.”
Jiang Cheng sat and listened, trying to pick out the phrase that had made him feel so unsettled as the song went along. He felt it, more than heard it. The melody was similar, but just as the night before, he felt a jolt in his breathing as it came along.
“Hm,” said Lan Wangji. He had been copying the notation as Nie Huaisang played; Jiang Cheng tried not to be impressed and failed. “Let us proceed, then, if we have my brother’s permission.” He went to a mat and flipped it up, to show a panel of wood. When he lifted it, a long stone staircase was revealed.
Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian, and Nie Huaisang began to descend, and Wei Yuan looked as if he would follow next. “We will remain here,” Jiang Cheng told him, although he desperately wanted to see what the Room of Forbidden Books might look like. He didn’t want Wei Yuan to see it, however, and he had the sneaking suspicion that even if Lan Xichen could forgive Nie Huaisang lying his way into the room, he wouldn’t appreciate the leader of another sect witnessing such a secret of the Cloud Recesses.
He and Wei Yuan sat quietly for quite awhile, Wei Yuan reading and Jiang Cheng simply turning the situation over in his head. If Jin Guangyao was plotting to murder Nie Mingjue through qi deviation, could it also be possible that he had been the one to send an assassin after himself and Lan Wangji? The Jin sect had been trying to consolidate power, first by trying to take the seal away from Wei Wuxian, and now through these cultivation towers.
Remembering Jin Guangshan’s hunger for the seal only made him think about the assassin’s words before they had destroyed him with it. Powerful friends, pulling him off the streets and ordering the killing of whole sects with a recreation of the demonic cultivation tool. It could be the Jin sect, without a doubt. If it was, Jiang Cheng suddenly realized his nephew was there, helpless. Jin Ling was within that pit of vipers, practically being raised by the man who they now suspected of trying to kill at least one sect leader, possibly many more.
Finally, Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian, and Nie Huaisang returned. Lan Wangji was holding a slim blue volume, and all three looked determined. “We must go to Koi Tower,” Jiang Cheng said, at the same time that Nie Huaisang did.
Startled, Jiang Cheng looked at him. “Did you find the evidence that you wanted?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Nie Huaisang nodded, a little jerkily. “There is a volume called Songs of Turmoil from which the phrase must have come. There’s a page missing. He must have stolen it to remove the evidence. We have to go to Koi Tower to find out more.”
“I have to go to Koi Tower to retrieve A-Ling,” said Jiang Cheng. “If Guangyao is a murderer, I can’t leave him there, to be a hostage or worse. Once he knows what we know, A-Ling is in terrible danger.”
“Do you see him?” asked Wei Wuxian in surprise. “The Jins allow you to visit?”
“I have him for half of every year,” said Jiang Cheng. “He’s the heir to Lotus Pier, too, don’t forget.” He scowled at Wei Wuxian, who raised his hands.
“I couldn’t forget, trust me, trust me,” he said. “How big is he now? Does he look like shijie?”
Jiang Cheng turned away. “We need to get going,” he said. “And this one needs to eat, how long were you three fools down there wasting our time?” He rested a hand on Wei Yuan’s head, pretending to knock him over with a gentle push.
“Help me,” Lan Wangji said quietly to Wei Wuxian, who took hold of the other side of the plank of wood that had hidden the entrance to the secret room, and helped him cover it again.
Once they were done, Lan Wangji continued to tidy the library, while Wei Wuxian brushed off his hands and said, “Let’s go eat together in Caiyi, we can plan out what to do next. I need chili oil to make my mind move right now.”
“Are you paying?” asked Jiang Cheng dryly.
“I would if you had bothered to bring me back to life with any money, A-Cheng,” said Wei Wuxian.
“You never had any money before, why would you now?” Jiang Cheng couldn’t believe how he could have forgotten for even a second how infuriating Wei Wuxian could be. He helped Wei Yuan tidy the desk they had been sitting at while he argued over his shoulder.
“I could have all the paper money that people burned for me while I was dead,” Wei Wuxian retorted. “Wei Yuan is a filial son, he cared for me, you could have brought some of that back.”
“Here,” said Jiang Cheng, thrusting a handful of paper at him. “It’s worth the same, you go ahead and turn it into money if you’re so smart.”
“Let’s go, I’m hungry,” said Nie Huaisang, linking Wei Wuxian’s arm with his. “Lan-er-gongzi, are you coming? Let’s go.”
Lan Wangji finished putting away the last of the books and scrolls that he and Wei Wuxian had been consulting and turned to follow, Jiang Cheng and Wei Yuan only a step behind.
Once they were in Caiyi, ensconced in a private room with their food, they looked at each other.
“I need to get Jin Ling out of there,” said Jiang Cheng. “I don’t know what excuse I’ll give, but if the Jin sect is killing off sect leaders, he’s not safe there.”
“Should Wei Yuan remain behind?” asked Nie Huaisang, and Wei Yuan quietly closed a hand around a piece of Jiang Cheng’s robes, staying still on his seat next to him.
“I don’t want him to come into Koi Tower, but I think he should stay close,” said Jiang Cheng, frowning at Lan Wangji, whose head had tipped consideringly when Nie Huaisang had raised the question.
“I agree,” said Lan Wangji. “Wei Ying also should not go to Koi Tower.”
“But --” started Wei Wuxian, but he cut himself off and looked thoughtful.
“He’d be killed on sight,” said Jiang Cheng. “We don’t want to have to fight our way out.”
“So the three of us,” said Nie Huaisang, indicating himself, Jiang Cheng, and Lan Wangji. “Do you know Koi Tower well? I’ve visited a few times, but I wouldn’t know where to start with secret rooms or hideaways, nowhere that Guangyao might hide his papers.”
Jiang Cheng shook his head, and Lan Wangji did as well.
“Nie-xiong, hold up your fan,” said Wei Wuxian.
Puzzled, Nie Huaisang flicked it open and held it in front of himself.
“Good, can you hide this behind it?” Wei Wuxian gave him a scrap of paper.
Nie Huaisang took it and held it in place easily, looking perplexed, but Lan Wangji was nodding slightly. Wei Wuxian looked at him and beamed. “I’ll go as a paperman,” he said. “You take me in behind the fan, then I’ll hop off and see what I can see.”
Carefully, Nie Huaisang flicked his fan open and closed, holding the scrap of paper slightly away as he did. “I think it could work,” he said. “So, the three of us, then? Bit of a strange group.” He indicated himself, Jiang Cheng, and Lan Wangji.
“I will remain with Wei Ying and A-Yuan,” said Lan Wangji in immediate negation. “Wei Ying will require an anchor, and A-Yuan will require company.” He raised an eyebrow at Wei Yuan, who nodded back at him.
“Looks like it’s just us,” said Nie Huaisang to Jiang Cheng. “Have you decided what you’re going to say in order to get Jin Ling away?”
Jiang Cheng frowned and shook his head. “I was going to start by asking to visit with him, and find some fault in the nursery, perhaps. Or tell the nursery attendant that I was taking him for an outing, and simply leave.”
Nie Huaisang blinked at him. “I’ll see if I can come up with something better than outright kidnapping,” he said. “Anyway, let’s start by saying you just happened to come with me, I come to visit occasionally to complain about da-ge, Guangyao just loves to comfort me.” His face shifted in anger, and Jiang Cheng couldn’t help but blink in surprise. Nie Huaisang took a deep breath, and the sudden and disconcerting resemblance to his brother faded as he composed himself. “How close do you have to be to control the paperman, Wei-xiong?” he asked.
Wei Wuxian shrugged. “The closer the better. Lanling City is probably close enough, if we get a room at an inn. You would have to make sure to carry me out, if I’m not in the same building. I always had a little trouble with the wind.” He smiled at Lan Wangji as if they carried a joke together, and Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes.
“That’s enough of a plan for me,” he said. “And we’re done eating. Are we ready to go?”
Nie Huaisang assented, and Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian as well. Wei Yuan, who had remained very still and quiet in his seat, carefully listening as he ate, merely nodded.
Once they were outside, Nie Huaisang drew his saber. “Shall I go first?” he asked. “We can reconvene at the inn nearest the tower, do you know the one?”
“Lead the way,” Jiang Cheng said. He looked at Wei Wuxian and twisted his mouth in irritation. “I suppose you didn’t bring Suibian.”
“Somehow it failed to materialize with me,” Wei Wuxian agreed. Jiang Cheng sighed and drew Wei Wuxian’s dizi from his sleeve.
“You’ll need to be able to protect yourself somehow then,” he said, handing it over. “Here, take this, don’t make me carry it around anymore.”
“Why were--” but Wei Wuxian cut himself off, taking the dizi with reverent hands. He looked up at Jiang Cheng, his eyes full of feelings, and Jiang Cheng scowled and looked away, ignoring the burning in his cheeks.
“You can’t fly with that thing, though,” he said.
“Wei Ying can ride with me,” said Lan Wangji.
Jiang Cheng caught the edge of the look Wei Wuxian was now giving Lan Wangji and he wanted no part of any of it. “You’re with me, then,” he told Wei Yuan. “We need to get you your sword pretty soon, don’t we?”
Wei Yuan grinned up at him. “Yes, shushu, and then I’ll start going on night hunts on my own, right?”
Jiang Cheng laughed, happy to be distracted for a moment. “At some point after that, yes. Hop up.” He drew Sandu and helped Wei Yuan step on.
The flight to Lanling was long and cold. Wei Yuan didn’t complain, but when they finally landed, Jiang Cheng saw him bending his fingers. He took Wei Yuan’s hands between his, gently warming them. “Why didn’t you say you were cold?” he asked sharply. “I should break your fingers off, next time take better care of them.” Satisfied that the small fingers were warmed, he let Wei Yuan take his hands back.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had landed next to them, and Wei Wuxian was watching Jiang Cheng. “He’s just like you,” Jiang Cheng snapped. “Never takes care of himself. I’ll break your fingers too, just you wait. Get out of my way, this terrible child needs tea.” He hustled Wei Yuan into the inn that they had chosen.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji followed. They had sat down and been served their tea before Nie Huaisang arrived, looking even colder than Wei Yuan had been. “I hate flying,” he said as he flung himself down at their table. “I always forget that I can either stay in the air and go fast enough to get somewhere, or keep myself warm and comfortable, but usually not both. It’s awful.” He made a face at Wei Yuan, who giggled.
Jiang Cheng drummed his fingers on the table as Nie Huaisang drank tea and warmed his hands. He chatted with Wei Yuan and Wei Wuxian, but Jiang Cheng was too anxious over Jin Ling to pay much attention. When Nie Huaisang looked like he might be back to normal, Jiang Cheng said, “I’m ready to go when you are. A-Yuan, you’ll be good?”
Wei Yuan nodded at him. Jiang Cheng glanced at Lan Wangji, who nodded slightly back. He was confident in his part of the plan, then. He glared at Wei Wuxian. “Don’t mess around while you’re there,” he said.
Wei Wuxian smiled back at him. “A-Cheng, don’t be so worried, I’ve done this lots of times! We should go upstairs to the room before you leave, so I can lie down and give you the paperman to carry. I don’t want Lan Zhan to have to carry me upstairs, what would people think!” He gave Lan Wangji an exaggerated leer. Lan Wangji crooked a single eyebrow, and Wei Wuxian looked away, flushed.
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he said. “Let’s go up then.”
They trooped up to the room that Lan Wangji had secured, and Wei Wuxian cut a piece of paper, made some swift brushstrokes and a big production about getting comfortable on the bed, then fell silent. Wei Yuan curled up by his side, patting him softly.
The paper twitched, then rose to perch cheekily on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. Nie Husaisang held out his fan, and the paperman obligingly hopped forward, pressing against the back of the fan, and Nie Huaisang pulled the fan back so he was hidden from sight.
“Please be careful,” said Lan Wangji softly. The paperman wiggled up so that it was looking over the edge of the fan, and wafted its little sleeves so it looked like it was blowing him a kiss.
“That’s enough of your nonsense,” said Jiang Cheng. “We should go before they’ve put Jin Ling to bed and we’ve lost any chance at a plausible exit.” Nie Huaisang turned to go, and Lan Wangji sat down at the table in the room, pulling out his guqin and beginning to play. Its gentle tones rang out as Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang left.
The trip to Koi Tower on foot was not short, but good manners forbade them from flying the last stretch. Jiang Cheng was not inclined to conversation, especially knowing that Wei Wuxian was able to listen in, and luckily, Nie Huaisang also seemed to be lost in thought.
As they got closer, Nie Huaisang led them away from the usual entrance, and toward a side door. The guard at the door seemed to know him well, though he gave Jiang Cheng a long, wary look before allowing them both inside. They settled into a small sitting room off the hall, and the paperman shook himself free of the fan, and slid out the door.
He had departed just in time -- Jin Guangyao did not make them wait long at all; they heard the sound of his hurrying feet only a minute later. “Huaisang, what’s wrong?” he said, nearly out of breath. “Is da-ge--”
Nie Huaisang burst into tears. “He’s so mean,” he wailed. “San-ge, you wouldn’t believe what he said to me--” and he flung himself onto Jin Guangyao’s shoulder, weeping.
Jiang Cheng’s discomfort was not feigned. Nie Huaisang had not discussed in advance his plans, and he was just as discomfited by the open display of emotion as he would have been if he’d thought it was genuine. Jin Guangyao patted Nie Huaisang’s shoulder and looked strained. “Huaisang, thank you for coming to me, I will help you, of course.” He looked at Jiang Cheng. “Jiang-zongzhu, thank you for bringing Huaisang, but how is it that you are here with him?”
“I happened to be visiting Qinghe and he wished to visit, after some incident with his brother,” said Jiang Cheng, who knew his own capacity for outright lies to be low enough that he should take advantage of this story being essentially true. “I thought I would accompany him and take the opportunity to say hello to A-Ling.”
Jin Guangyao looked helplessly between Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang, who was still clutching Jin Guangyao’s robes. “I may be here for some time,” he said.
“Summon a servant,” said Jiang Cheng, and Jin Guangyao hesitated. His status in the house, with Madam Jin aligned against him, might not extend to command over servants in that way, and Jiang Cheng had been hoping for that exact thing. Jiang Cheng stared at him in expectant silence.
Finally, Jin Guangyao gave in. “I’m sure you know the way from here,” he said. “The nursery has not changed places, and he’s certain to be there this late in the day. If you would rather go than remain, I’m sure it would be fine.”
Jiang Cheng looked at Nie Huaisang for a brief moment. “I’ll go,” he said, looking back at Jin Guangyao. Jin Guangyao’s answering smile was knowing, as though they had shared an unfriendly secret, and Jiang Cheng left, feeling somewhat greasy.
Koi Tower was large and sprawling, but Jiang Cheng had been there enough times over the years that he had a reasonably good idea how to get to the nursery, even from the side hall from which they had entered. He walked briskly, looking forward, and though he saw several Jin disciples, who looked askance at him, he did not pause to acknowledge them. Nobody chased him down, though he would expect word of his presence to reach Jin Guangshan, or at least Madam Jin, before he even made it to the nursery.
He reached the door unaccosted, and paused a moment to listen. There were small noises within, but no crying or sounds of upset. He slid the door open as quietly as he could. Catching some tantrum or accident would be an easy way to claim mistreatment, and spirit Jin Ling away on that pretext. But the nursery attendant was on the floor playing some gentle game with Jin Ling, who seemed reasonably calm.
They both looked up, startled, when the door opened, and Jin Ling lit up. He threw down his toys and ran to Jiang Cheng with a happy cry of “Jiujiu!” Jiang Cheng took him up for a brief hug, then set him down again.
“What nonsense are you up to now?” he asked, and allowed Jin Ling to drag him forward.
Jin Ling was explaining the game when Madam Jin arrived. The nursery attendant saw her arrive and whisked herself out of sight with a gasp. “Jiang-zongzhu, what a pleasant surprise,” she said, visibly lying through her teeth. “How is it that you have arrived for this visit?”
“Nie Huaisang wished to visit his brother’s brother, and I offered to accompany him,” Jiang Cheng said shortly. “He and Guangyao were speaking privately and so I came to visit with my nephew. How has he been?”
“In the short span since you left?” Madam Jin said. “Very well. Quite a bit changes from visit to visit, doesn’t it?” Jiang Cheng nodded; it was true. “Why, it makes me feel as though we’re missing so much of his childhood, sending him back and forth like this.”
Jiang Cheng bared his teeth in a mockery of a smile. “I’ve been thinking the same thing,” he said.
“But you’re so very busy these days,” said Madam Jin. “I understand there is still much rebuilding at Lotus Pier.”
“Madam Jin, how could a person be too busy for family?” said Jiang Cheng. “Children are our most precious gift in this life.”
“You should be thinking about marrying and having children of your own, then,” she returned. “I have heard that the matchmakers have not yet been busy in Yunmeng.”
“Can one son replace another so easily?” he asked. Madam Jin recoiled as though he had slapped her face.
“A nephew is not a son,” she said. “Heir or no. Not being a father, you wouldn’t know, I’m sure.” Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth and looked down at Jin Ling, who was in his own world, talking to his little toy and flying it around.
“I know what it’s like to worry about those you love,” he said. “When you entrust their care to someone who might not value it as you would prefer.”
Madam Jin glared at him. “How could you say that Jin Ling isn’t valued here?”
“Did I say that?” Jiang Cheng feigned surprise as best he could. “Only that I worried.”
“Jin Ling is perfectly safe at Koi Tower, and I do not appreciate your implication that he is not,” said Madam Jin.
“You haven’t heard the rumors, then?” said Jiang Cheng. “About the assassins?”
“Assassins?” Madam Jin sounded taken aback. “But we’re at peace!”
“Peace,” scoffed Jiang Cheng. “Tell that to the He or Chang clans. Except you can’t now, of course, can you.”
Madam Jin looked at him for a long minute. “Do you have something to say, Jiang-zongzhu,” she said, finally.
“I want to take Jin Ling away from Koi Tower,” he said bluntly. “It’s not safe here for him.”
She looked at him again, the spark of anger from their disagreement fading and a look of understanding growing. “You know that for sure?” she asked.
Jiang Cheng hesitated. “It may become so,” he said. “I cannot predict from which direction the danger lies.”
Unexpectedly, she laughed. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. “At Koi Tower, the snakes are everywhere,” she said. “Who could predict from which the bite will come?” She patted Jin Ling gently on the head. “You’d better take him,” she said.
Jiang Cheng rose, easily lifting Jin Ling with him. “Just like that?” he said.
“Jin Ling is the only one left here that I love,” she said. “I hate to have him far from me, but he must not be in danger, do you understand me?” Her voice was fierce, and Jiang Cheng was reminded of his own mother in the flashing of her eyes.
“I understand completely,” he said. He didn’t stay to question his good fortune, or even pack a bag. He had plenty of things for Jin Ling at Lotus Pier, and what they lacked, he could easily buy.
As he traveled back the way he’d come, Jin Ling on his hip, he was startled for a moment by a scrap of paper zipping around him, as though blown by a gust of wind, though the air was still. It was Wei Wuxian’s paperman, and it fluttered around Jiang Cheng as though uncertain of his welcome. Jiang Cheng snorted and snatched it from the air, and slipped it into his outer robe, keeping it from view as well as Jin Ling’s curious fingers.
When he returned with Jin Ling to the small sitting room, Nie Huaisang was still there, pouring out his woes on Jin Guangyao’s shoulder. Jiang Cheng was reluctantly impressed; he had not thought Nie Huaisang to be capable of distracting Jin Guangyao so thoroughly.
Jiang Cheng tapped on the doorframe. “Nie-xiong,” he called impatiently.
Nie Huaisang’s wails cut off. Jiang Cheng heard him making a quiet farewell, and Jin Guangyao sigh. “Please try to talk to your brother,” said Jin Guangyao. “And play for him faithfully, it will help his temper. I’ll try to come again as soon as I can.”
“Yes, san-ge,” said Nie Huaisang. “Thank you, I’ll see you soon.” He came out of the room, and looked carefully at Jiang Cheng, who nodded back.
They left, Jiang Cheng trying to keep from running, Nie Huaisang walking next to him with the fastest saunter he’d ever seen, Jin Ling leaning over Jiang Cheng, innocent to their tension, to explain to Nie Huaisang about the toy he was carrying.
They reached the tavern in record time, and went straight to the room where Lan Wangji awaited them. Wei Wuxian was still traveling with Jiang Cheng as the paperman, of course, and Wei Yuan had fallen asleep curled at his side. The paperman fluttered free of Jiang Cheng’s robes and plastered itself against Lan Wangji, playfully tugging at his forehead ribbon before growing still.
After a moment, Wei Wuxian began to stir. He started to sit up, then put his hand to his forehead and slid back down. Lan Wangji was at his side in an instant. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” Wei Wuxian protested. “Just dizzy, you try being made of paper for an hour. Oh, oh, what’s this?” He patted the bed next to him where Wei Yuan slept. “I’ll tell you what I found from here, then,” he said. “Oh, no, wait, is this Jin Ling?” He peered at the child Jiang Cheng was holding.
“Yes,” he said, and turned so Wei Wuxian could get a good look, and he stared, silent. Jin Ling, suddenly shy, put his face into Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, and Wei Wuxian eased back, pressing his lips together, hard.
“Did you find the pages from the Songs of Turmoil?” asked Nie Huaisang after a long breath.
“No, but I did find a lovely assortment of works on demonic cultivation,” said Wei Wuxian, regaining his cheerfulness. “Written by the foremost expert in the field.”
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “You, I suppose?”
“Of course, me!” Wei Wuxian said. “He really had quite a lot of my writings, especially my notes on Wen Ning, for some reason. And he had Suibian, Jiang Cheng, so you just need to get him to give it to you and then you can’t tell me off for not having my sword again. There were some deeds and maps, but no written music and no written confessions or anything like that.”
“So nothing,” said Jiang Cheng. He turned his attention back to Jin Ling, whose eyes were looking heavy. “Did they feed you any dinner before we left?” he asked him, and Jin Ling sleepily nodded. “Then you need to sleep,” he said. “Are we staying here?” He lifted his head and addressed the other men in the room.
“I’m not flying anywhere tonight,” said Nie Huaisang. “I’ll fall for sure.”
“Then we’ll need another three rooms,” said Jiang Cheng. He looked at Lan Wangji, who was still stubbornly sitting by Wei Wuxian’s head on the bed, and at Nie Huaisang, who was delicately drooping, and decided that of the adults present, it was down to him. “Here,” he said, and handed Jin Ling to Lan Wangji, who received him with equanimity, though Wei Wuxian seemed surprised at the exchange.
“Two rooms,” said Lan Wangji. Jiang Cheng looked at him for explanation. “I will stay in here,” he said, and Jiang Cheng looked at Wei Wuxian, who was looking at Lan Wangji, and left the room as soon as possible.
After talking with the innkeeper, Jiang Cheng returned to the room, to see that Lan Wangji had transferred Wei Yuan and Jin Ling, now fully asleep, to makeshift pallets on the floor. “Only one room left,” he said to Nie Huaisang. “You’re in with me.”
Nie Huaisang, looking almost as close to sleep as the children, just nodded and trailed along behind him.
Jiang Cheng’s sleep that night was fitful; he dreamed of being back in the lectures at Cloud Recesses, dreamed of Lotus Pier, dreamed of Jiang Yanli smiling gently at him, then opening her mouth and screaming endlessly.
He snapped into wakefulness, and the scream continued. It was coming from outside, low and extended, and it sounded deeply pained. Just as he was about to rise and investigate, it stopped, and didn’t restart.
Still, he thought it was worth checking. He threw on his outer robes, leaving his hair loose, and crept over a still-sleeping Nie Huaisang.
Once outside, he wished he had just rolled over and gone back to sleep. Lan Wangji had just punched Wen Ning, which was a shock in itself, while Wei Wuxian stood nearby holding long, bloody nails and looking strangely amused.
“What are you doing?” Jiang Cheng hissed. “It’s the middle of the night, and he’s supposed to be dead.”
Lan Wangji looked him straight in the eye and said, “Go away.” Jiang Cheng reared back, then took a closer look. Lan Wangji looked completely normal, except his eyes -- he was unfocused.
“You’re drunk,” he said. He turned to Wei Wuxian. “You got him drunk, while you’re supposed to be looking after children and trying to prevent murders, let alone calling up more dead men. I’m going to break your legs, I should never have brought you back to life.” Wei Wuxian was looking between him, Lan Wangji, who was swaying slightly in place, and Wen Ning, who was lurking nearby, out of punching range.
“Go away,” said Lan Wangji again.
“I’m going! I’m going! Because you left the babies asleep on the floor!” He pointed at Wei Wuxian. “You deal with this mess, and I’ll talk to you in the morning!” He stomped back inside, and up to the first room, where the boys still slept like rocks. He stole a pillow from the bed and threw himself down on the floor next to Wei Yuan.
He managed to sleep through the return of Wei Wuxian and the drunken Lan Wangji, and possibly Wen Ning, although if he had come in, he had left again by the time Jiang Cheng woke, groggy, grumpy, and with Jin Ling sitting on his chest. Very used to this by now, he just removed Jin Ling from his perch, and sat up. Lan Wangji was up and immaculate, Wei Wuxian was a snoring lump, and Wei Yuan was combing his hair.
“Did you bring anyone else back from the dead yet today?” he asked.
Lan Wangji looked at him, seemingly confused. “Not that I recall,” he said.
“Do you not remember punching Wen Ning in the middle of the night last night?” Jiang Cheng asked. Lan Wangji gave him an utterly blank face. “Being drunk? Telling me to go away? Stop me when it gets familiar.”
Lan Wangji just shook his head, looking skeptical.
Jiang Cheng clicked his tongue. “Blackout drunk, what a shame. I had heard that Lans couldn’t hold their liquor, but this is really something else. Wen Ning is still alive,” he said helpfully, suddenly amused. “Wake up Wei Wuxian and make him tell you about it, he never forgets anything he does while he’s drunk. I’m going to go wash and get breakfast for this hooligan. A-Yuan, you’ve eaten?” Jin Ling was hanging from his arm, trying to get Jiang Cheng to swing him around. At Wei Yuan’s nod, Jiang Cheng left the room, Jin Ling still clinging, his feet not touching the ground.
In their room, Nie Huaisang was still sleeping, but Jiang Cheng didn’t bother to be quiet as he went, and Jin Ling was, of course, never quiet, so he soon roused. The three of them were quickly ready for the day, since they had not planned to sleep over and had brought no changes of clothing. The breakfast, when it came, was simple but filling, and the three of them returned to see if Wei Wuxian had been wrestled awake yet.
He had, though he still seemed somewhat grumpy as he dragged a spoon around in his congee. “Would it have killed you to ask for extra chili oil?” he was asking when Jiang Cheng, Nie Huaisang, and Jin Ling came in.
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “Not every meal has to be composed entirely of pain,” he said. “Are you nearly ready to go?”
“Where are we going?” asked Wei Wuxian.
“Lotus Pier,” said Jiang Cheng at the same time that Nie Huaisang said, “Qinghe,” and Lan Wangji said, “Cloud Recesses.”
“I need to get Jin Ling somewhere safe,” Jiang Cheng said.
“I want to tell da-ge what we’ve found so far,” said Nie Huaisang. “If Lan Xichen is still there, we could tell him too; he’d have to believe us.”
“Would he?” asked Jiang Cheng. “We don’t exactly have solid proof of anything.”
“Wen Ning is standing right outside,” said Wei Wuxian, who had a view of the street from his chair. “Maybe we could see if he has anything to say before we get too much further.”
They trooped outside, and sure enough, Wen Ning was standing there before them, body crisscrossed in thick chains. He looked dazed, and when he saw Wei Wuxian, he stood up a little straighter, then turned and walked away.
Wei Wuxian looked around at them, then followed, Lan Wangji hot on his heels. Jiang Cheng picked up Jin Ling and went along as well, Wei Yuan at his side. Nie Huaisang trailed behind them, complaining lightly under his breath.
Wei Yuan took the opportunity to pepper Jiang Cheng with questions. “Who is he?” he asked. “Why does he have those chains? What’s on his neck? Where are we going?” He paused. “He looks familiar, do I know him?”
Jiang Cheng gritted his teeth and took a breath. “Yes, you knew him,” he said quietly. “He was kin to you on your mother’s side.”
“My mother!” Wei Yuan exclaimed. “Did he know her?”
“He’s not talking to anyone yet, and we have important business to carry out,” Jiang Cheng said shortly. “Save your questions.”
Wei Yuan fell silent. After a moment, Jiang Cheng felt a small hand slide into his, and he held onto it, letting his sleeve fall to hide it.
When they caught up to Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, Wei Yuan slid away to move closer to Wen Ning, and look up at Wei Wuxian with big eyes. He was obedient to what Jiang Cheng had said, though, and asked no more questions.
Wen Ning still did not seem alert enough to speak or to look at anyone, but he led them almost to Koi Tower. Wei Yuan, walking next to Wei Wuxian, kept turning to look at him until Jiang Cheng frowned at him, and he took the hint and faced forward after that.
As they neared Koi Tower, Wen Ning diverged from the path without saying anything. Jiang Cheng almost didn’t realize until they were on the grass and not a road. “Hey,” he said, “Wei Wuxian, where’s your dead friend going?”
Wen Ning moved through the grounds with quiet determination. They were well within the Jin compound now, but moving to a distant corner, far from the main buildings. Wen Ning was walking toward a small house that looked like a servant’s dormitory.
Unlike a servant’s dormitory, they could see as they got closer, this door was heavily secured and reinforced. That didn’t matter to Wen Ning, of course, who opened the door as though it were unlocked, metal twisting as though it were paper. He walked inside, and Jiang Cheng exchanged wary glances with Nie Huaisang, and clutched Jin Ling closer.
Nothing emerged from the house for a long minute, and Wei Wuxian said, “I’ll go see what’s there.”
Lan Wangji immediately said, “I will accompany Wei Ying.”
Jiang Cheng let the two of them go first, then followed. Was this where Wen Ning had been kept in his chains? If so, why had it still been locked and the door undisturbed, if he had recently come from within?
When he reached the door, he recoiled slightly. The house was small, and smelled of sickness that had not been allowed to air out. Nie Huaisang, at his side, wrinkled his nose and flicked open his fan. “Why don’t I stay out here?” he said. “I’ll shout if anyone comes too near.” Jiang Cheng nodded, then forced himself to walk inside.
Wei Wuxian had rushed to kneel at the bedside, which contained a frail body under thin covers. Jiang Cheng couldn’t see who rested there, only that Wei Wuxian had taken a woman’s hand and was patting it. But he looked at Wen Ning, calmly standing by the head of the bed with his hair covering his face, and he knew.
He drew back a little. “It must be Wen Qing,” he said to Wei Yuan. “More of your mother’s family. But she seems very ill.”
“Indeed,” said Lan Wangji from further inside. He gently displaced Wei Wuxian from the side of the bed, and began to gently and carefully examine her. “She’s been poisoned,” he said, and began to gently direct qi at her wrist. “Please fetch water,” he said. “And a basin, quickly.”
Wen Ning followed the commands first, locating a basin before Wei Wuxian had even started to look, quickly returning with a flask of water as well. He still did not speak.
Wen Qing began to vomit into the basin, and Lan Wangji carefully supported her shoulders. When she seemed to be done, he let her lie back down and he examined the contents of the bowl before setting it down. She seemed more alert after that, and allowed him to help her rinse her mouth.
“Took you long enough,” she said hoarsely, and balled her fist, hitting Wei Wuxian weakly on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he said, head bowed.
“Me too,” she said, and relaxed her hand so she was patting weakly at his shoulder.
“Me too,” said Wen Ning, looking up for the first time.
“Wen-xiong!” exclaimed Wei Wuxian. “Welcome back!”
“Hi, Wei-xiong,” said Wen Ning, quietly. “Thanks for coming to see us.”
“Well, I would have come sooner, but I was dead,” Wei Wuxian explained. Wen Ning nodded like it was a good excuse, and Jiang Cheng supposed that he was the only other person in the world to whom that seemed like an entirely reasonable answer.
Wen Qing pushed herself upright. “Who all is here?” she asked, sounding dazed still. “It’s dark in here with the shutters closed, light a lantern.” Wen Ning followed her instructions, and a warm glow lit the gloomy space.
“Lan Wangji and I, and Jiang Wanyin with Jin Ling, and A-Yuan -- oh, A-Yuan, come meet Wen Qing, and Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian said, waving him forward. “Your cousins, look,” he said.
Wen Qing reached out and took his hand. “A-Yuan?” she asked, and started to cry, which made her cough. Wen Ning gently moved Wei Wuxian aside and held her up with an arm around her shoulders.
“You’re sick,” said Wei Wuxian. “Why are you here?”
“They were controlling A-Ning,” she said. “Needles, in his head and tied to my core. If anyone ever removed them, it would start to poison me. His freedom would mean my death.”
Wei Wuxian looked stricken. “Qing-jie, I didn’t know! I’m sorry!” He threw himself into her lap, and she patted his head.
“Can the damage be reversed?” asked Lan Wangji quietly.
Wen Qing looked uncertain. “I would need to research. Of course they wouldn’t bring me books of that sort while I was here. They only gave me materials enough to do the work they wanted --” she gasped. “My work,” she said. “Wei Wuxian, Jiang Wanyin, you must -- before we go, it’s -- your sister,” she said, and started to cough again.
Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng exchanged looks and waited for her to regain her breath.
Finally, Wen Qing spoke again. “She’s alive,” she said.
Wei Wuxian stood up. “Where?” he demanded. “How?” Jiang Cheng was frozen, still. He’d seen her -- they had all seen her. Her injury had not been one that could have been survived, even with immediate care, which she had not received.
“Here, at Koi Tower,” said Wen Qing, her voice weak and thready as she explained. “She hasn’t woken since she was injured, but her spiritual cognition was still circulating when they brought her body back from Nightless City. I’ve been keeping her alive while they have attempted to use your notes to wake her as you woke my brother.”
“How?” asked Wei Wuxian again, his voice raw. Jiang Cheng abruptly remembered that Wei Wuxian had not had years to remember that their sister was dead; to him, it had been mere days ago.
“Her golden core wasn’t strong, but it was stubborn,” said Wen Qing. “It’s keeping her alive, in a way.”
“Who is it that’s trying to wake her?” Jiang Cheng asked. He couldn’t even identify his emotions at the thought that jiejie was alive, that he could see her, that she might wake up and smile at him again. He looked down at Jin Ling on his hip, who had long since forgotten his mother, whom he had only known for scant months.
“Jin Guangyao and some terrible teenager,” said Wen Qing. “I’m not often there when they are.” She hesitated. “I had the impression that Guangyao had hoped to revive her in order to marry her.” Jiang Cheng felt his face twist in disgust and fear.
“Could you take us there?” asked Wei Wuxian. “I want to see her, I want to see what they’ve done.”
“She’s under heavy guard,” warned Wen Qing.
“I’ll kill them,” said Wei Wuxian immediately, as though it weren’t even a question.
Lan Wangji rested his hand on Wei Wuxian’s arm. “Perhaps we will try other methods first,” he said.
“But if we can’t, we’ll kill them,” said Wei Wuxian. He turned slightly, resting his forehead against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. Jiang Cheng saw his shoulders move, as if in a silent sob.
“You don’t want more of a plan than that?” Wen Qing asked. “I’m too sick to help, still, and there are children here. And where will you take her? How? Think for once, Wei Ying.”
“What if she dies before I can save her?” Wei Wuxian chokes out. He turned his face more fully into Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
Ignoring that question, Jiang Cheng mentally went through their fighting assets -- Lan Wangji, himself, Wei Wuxian, Wen Ning -- and their deficits -- Wen Qing, Nie Huaisang, and the two small children whom he was not willing to risk in any way. He wasn’t even sure they could manage to fly away by sword, especially if they were carrying a fragile, unconscious person. They’d have to travel over land, or by water, which meant that Wei Wuxian’s ‘kill them all’ plan would need significant refining.
“Does Madam Jin know?” asked Jiang Cheng, remembering her willingness to release Jin Ling to him in order to ensure his safety. Could she be involved in this deception and look him in the eye still?
Wen Qing shook her head, but it wasn’t a no. “I don’t know who knows,” she said. “I’ve only ever seen those two, but I’m a prisoner, not a guest. They weren’t overflowing with information for me.”
“We’ll need a boat,” said Jiang Cheng. “We’ll be safe if we can get to Lotus Pier, and we won’t be able to fly.” He caught Lan Wangji’s eye. “Should we enlist your brother’s help?” he asked.
Lan Wangji considered this, his arm still tight behind Wei Wuxian’s back but his gaze caught in the middle distance. “Do we want to act in secrecy? Bringing my brother means acting openly.” Wei Wuxian lifted his head, looking between Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng.
“He’ll tell Jin Guangyao,” Jiang Cheng translated easily, and Wei Wuxian scowled. “We would run the risk that they’d deny it, and hide her elsewhere. So, just us, and we should act quickly.” He looked around the room, which was a scant step above a prison cell. “If you leave, how quickly will they notice?” he asked Wen Qing. “Your brother destroyed the door pretty thoroughly, I don’t know if we can repair it enough to escape notice.”
“They come daily,” she said. “They would know by evening if I am gone.”
“Hours, then,” said Jiang Cheng. “We’ll take you to the docks, then, and hire a boat. Then you’ll remain and guard the children while--”
“I’m the one who knows where she is,” interrupted Wen Qing, sounding annoyed. She flung the blanket aside and sat up. “If you can get me ingredients for medicine, I can be up for a fight by this afternoon.”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “That’s Qing-jie,” he said, sounding fond. “Okay, boat, medicine, what else?” he asked. “It sounds like we almost have a real plan.”
“I’ve been leading a sect by myself for years,” Jiang Cheng snapped. “Don’t sound surprised.” He gave Wei Wuxian a moment for a retort, but he held his tongue, so Jiang Cheng continued. “We’ll hire a boat, get Wen-guniang her medicine, and get the children safely under guard. Then we’ll return to Koi Tower. I’ll get an audience with Madam Jin, ask her to come with me to a meeting point. Wen-guniang, you’ll have to be veiled, but you can lead us from there. Madam Jin can get us through the guards, and either she will help us, or she’ll serve as an excellent hostage. We’ll know which it will be once we are near the place where jiejie is being held.”
Wen Qing had her head cocked as she thought it over, and Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian also looked thoughtful. “Can you trust her to help, if she truly didn’t know?” asked Wen Qing.
Jiang Cheng shrugged. “She can’t be predicted one way or the other; her temper is legendary. But she was very fond of jiejie. If there’s a chance she can be awakened, I can’t help but imagine she’ll help.”
“Where are we in this plan?” asked Wei Wuxian, indicating himself and Lan Wangji.
“Guarding the children, or hidden as near as we can,” replied Jiang Cheng promptly. “Madam Jin will be suspicious of too large a group, it must be myself and Wen-guniang only.”
“I don’t like it,” said Wei Wuxian immediately.
Jiang Cheng scowled at him. “You can’t run away and be a lone hero,” he said. “If you try to act on your own, you’ll get jiejie killed, again.”
Wei Wuxian looked down, and Jiang Cheng bit his tongue. The pain where jiejie wasn’t was an aching scar for him, but a sharp wound for his brother. He could have softened his words, and he hadn’t. He looked at Lan Wangji, and wished he hadn’t, scorched by the heat of his glare.
Had he lied, though? He pressed his lips together and waited to see what Wei Wuxian would say.
“I won’t,” he said softly, his head bowed. “But I want to be there, in case something goes wrong as we move her to travel.”
Jiang Cheng sighed. “Fine,” he said. “We’ll find a reason to have a second disguised person. Why not have Wen Ning, I’ll have an entire retinue of formerly deceased persons.”
Wei Wuxian brightened. “Do you think so? He’d be great to have along if there was a struggle.”
Jiang Cheng threw his free hand, the one not still clutching Jin Ling, in the air. “No! Bad enough that you’re coming!”
Lan Wangji intervened with a quiet, “We should depart quickly,” and Jiang Cheng refocused.
“Do you need to bring anything from here?” he asked Wen Qing, and she shook her head.
“Just hand me some outer robes, and help me walk,” she said. “I’ll be happy to leave this place behind.” Wen Ning quietly handed the robes to her, and all but lifted her out of bed, one arm around her waist. Wei Yuan went to her other side, and she smiled at him, putting her hand on his shoulder as though he was helping to support her, too.
“Wait,” said Jiang Cheng. “Nie Huaisang.” He looked around, and Wei Wuxian nodded, even if the other adults in the room looked puzzled. “If we let him know about this, his brother will know, and then who knows what might happen,” he explained. “We should send him back to Qinghe before we do anything else.”
Wen Qing nodded. “Do you want to send him off before I come out? Did he hear that it was me?”
“I don’t know, but if he didn’t, I’ll go now and send him off,” said Jiang Cheng. He went through the doorway and blinked in the newly bright day.
Nie Huaisang was standing a few paces off, looking into the middle distance. He startled slightly when Jiang Cheng came close. “Is everything all right?” he asked. “I was thinking that I should get back to Qinghe soon, so I don’t have to rush to beat sunset.” He smiled and tipped his head to the side, the very picture of an indolent young gentleman.
“I think that’s a good plan,” said Jiang Cheng, relieved that he wouldn’t have to try to persuade him. “Please wish your brother well for me, I hope he recovers quickly.”
“I’ll tell him you said so,” said Nie Huaisang with a smile. He drew his saber and took a deep breath before mounting it and rising, a touch wobbly, into the air. He waved a cheerful farewell, and Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling waved back as he quickly faded from view.
“That was easy,” he told Jin Ling, who solemnly nodded back, then raised his voice slightly. “All clear out here!”
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji came out first, checking the vicinity for themselves, and then Wen Ning, Wen Qing, and Wei Yuan emerged, awkwardly navigating the doorway from their three-wide little bunch.
The grounds were quiet at this time of day, and they met no one. It was less of a daring escape, and more of a dignified hobble, but Jiang Cheng was just as glad to remain relatively inconspicuous. It would certainly make their task later that day much easier.
Once they were nearly in Lanling City, Jiang Cheng drew Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian a step away. “I’ll accompany them through the city,” he indicated Wen Ning, Wen Qing, and Wei Yuan, who had paused as well to allow Wen Qing to catch her breath. “You engage a boat to Lotus Pier. Try to talk them out of sending a boatsman, we can navigate perfectly well. Buy the damn boat if you have to.” Lan Wangji nodded.
“You’re forgetting something very important,” said Wei Wuxian.
“What?” asked Jiang Cheng, not trusting Wei Wuxian’s light tone.
“It’s nearly lunchtime,” he said, chucking Jin Ling under the chin.
Jiang Cheng looked back at Wen Qing, who was pale where she leaned against her brother and young cousin. “We should get the medicine first,” he said. “But we can get some food for lunch also. We’ll meet you at the docks.”
“A-Ling should come with us,” said Lan Wangji. He looked at Jiang Cheng. “You will have your hands full as it is.”
Jiang Cheng drew Jin Ling close for a moment, considering that. “Will you go with gege?” he asked Jin Ling, who reached his arms out for Lan Wangji. “Fine,” he said, tipping him into Lan Wangji’s receiving arm. “Get a bun or something for him on the way, will you?”
Lan Wangji sketched a nod, and he and Wei Wuxian turned to walk away. “Gege?” Jiang Cheng heard Wei Wuxian say, his voice teasing, before he turned his attention back to his other charges.
Wen Qing had straightened up and was looking ready to continue. “What do we need?” Jiang Cheng asked. “Do you know where we should go?”
She nodded. “Unless the shop I’m thinking of has closed, but I used to go there before --” She took a deep breath and didn’t resume.
Jiang Cheng looked at Wen Ning, who was still covered in chains. “We should have sent you off with the others,” he said. “Take all that mess off, we can’t draw attention.” Wen Ning looked down as though he’d forgotten, and obligingly stepped away to shrug them away and stash them inconspicuously under some shrubbery. Wen Qing leaned a little harder on Wei Yuan, who braced himself and looked up at Jiang Cheng proudly. He nodded back at him, very slightly.
Once Wen Ning looked relatively normal, if pale, Jiang Cheng allowed them to continue. Wen Qing directed them in a quiet voice, and they found the shop amongst the winding warrens of Lanling City.
The four of them nearly filled the shop by themselves. The sharp, medicinal smell hung heavy in the air. A few quiet words from Wen Qing were all that it took for several small packets of herbs and needles to be prepared, and Jiang Cheng was ready with his money pouch. It was mere minutes before they were back out on the street.
“We should get provisions for the trip as well,” said Jiang Cheng. “Even using talismans for speed, it will take most of the evening to return to Lotus Pier. We’ll make our way toward the docks, and stock up on the way. Do you need anything else?” he asked, and Wen Qing shook her head.
Their progress through Lanling City was slow; Wen Qing was clearly tiring. Jiang Cheng couldn’t see how she imagined any amount of medicine or acupuncture would heal her enough for their mission that afternoon, but he tried to focus only on the task in front of him. She was a cultivator, after all, and she knew her business well.
By the time they had arrived at the docks, Wen Ning was all but carrying her, while Wei Yuan carefully toted several tied parcels from various food vendors.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had managed to obtain a boat of sufficient size, and were easily located. At some point in their venture, Wei Wuxian had gained a hat in addition to the baozi and some skewered meat that he was teasing Jin Ling with, offering the stick and snatching it away, when Jiang Cheng and his small group found them. Lan Wangji was watching them, but he easily noticed them when they arrived.
Wen Ning carried Wen Qing into the boat, settling her at the stern. She quickly withdrew her packets, and he squatted in front of her, helping her unwrap. Jiang Cheng left them to it.
“Did you bother to feed your nephew at all?” he snapped, and took the skewer, offering it to Jin Ling, who wrinkled his nose and shook his head, then crammed the last of the bun in his hand into his mouth.
“Ugh,” he said, and handed the stick back to Wei Wuxian, looking away from his nephew’s poor manners, only to be treated to Wei Wuxian’s, as he finished the last of the skewered meat just as rudely. “Ugh!”
Lan Wangji was helping Wei Yuan unpack what he had carried, and Jiang Cheng joined them. He’d wanted to get to the docks quickly, and they hadn’t stopped to eat. He and Wei Yuan made short work of their lunch, saving a portion for Wen Qing once she felt well enough to eat.
But when Jiang Cheng looked aft again, Wen Qing was asleep, or unconscious, and Wen Ning sat over her, fanning her gently.
After that, there wasn’t much to do but wait. Jiang Cheng spent some time stowing their things, and checking the boat over, but until Wen Qing was capable of her part in their plan, he couldn’t think of anything that could be done.
He sat in a shady spot with Jin Ling, who was dozing on his shoulder, and Wei Yuan, who was too old for naps now, sat nearby, staring out at the water. The boat was large enough for all of them, but not large enough that any of them could sit spaced particularly far apart, and Wei Wuxian sat next to Wei Yuan, and Lan Wangji fit himself on the other side of Wei Wuxian.
“Tell me about living at Lotus Pier,” Wei Wuxian said, nudging Wei Yuan with his shoulder. “Do you swim every day and shoot arrows at kites like we used to do?” Jiang Cheng looked into the middle distance. If it was going to be reminiscence as though Wei Wuxian had been a happy Jiang disciple his whole life, he would have to fling himself into the river.
Wei Yuan nodded, smiling. “Yes, baba.” He didn’t elaborate, and Jiang Cheng was grateful. A small silence fell, and Jiang Cheng let himself move past all the planning and think about seeing jiejie again. Would she look the same? Would she be well, and simply look like she was sleeping, or would she still be injured? He’d have to ask Wen Qing so that he could prepare himself.
He almost couldn’t bring himself to hope that Wei Wuxian would be able to bring her to life again as he had with Wen Ning. If he let himself hope, and she never awakened, it would be as bad as losing her the first time had been. He clenched his jaw against the fresh wave of grief and closed his eyes.
When he awoke, it was because Jin Ling had just kicked him in the gut trying to squirm away. The angle of the sun told him that they’d slept for an hour at least, and he glanced around to see if he could catch a glimpse of Wen Qing to see if she was still sleeping as well.
She was awake, and looked as though she’d slept for a week. Her color was high, and her eyes bright as she spoke quietly with Wen Ning and Wei Yuan, who had migrated toward them at some point while Jiang Cheng had slept. Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were still sitting where they had been, Wei Wuxian’s head tucked against Lan Wangji’s shoulder and his eyes closed, though Jiang Cheng couldn’t tell if he was asleep in truth. He avoided catching Lan Wangji’s gaze.
While he had looked away, though, Jin Ling had begun attempting to depart the boat the quick way, and Jiang Cheng didn’t have further time to take stock before he had to snatch him back, narrowly avoiding a dunking in the river. “Hey,” he said roughly. “Do you have a death wish? What do you think you’re doing?”
“Swimming, jiujiu,” said Jin Ling serenely.
“No swimming,” said Jiang Cheng. “Listening to your elders.”
“No,” said Jin Ling with a pout.
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “Well, you’re going to,” he said, “or I’ll break your legs and then what will you do, huh?”
Jin Ling leaned down and bit his arm, though whether it was out of frustration or just demonstration, Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure. He yelped, either way; Jin Ling’s milk teeth were as sharp as a puppy’s. “Here,” he said, and shoved him at Lan Wangji, who received him placidly and somehow without disturbing Wei Wuxian, and turned to the stern where Wei Yuan was watching with amusement, and Wen Ning and Wen Qing with alarmed concern.
“He’s a menace,” Jiang Cheng said. “Wen-guniang, are you recovered?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I can leave whenever you like.”
It was what Jiang Cheng had hoped to hear. “The sooner the better,” he agreed. He looked at Wen Ning hard. “Can I trust you to guard the children?” he asked. “You won’t listen to any fool who comes along with a flute?”
Wen Ning shook his head. “The only fool with a flute I’m compelled to obey is Wei Wuxian,” he said softly, and Jiang Cheng laughed, startling both of them.
“Fine,” he said. “Listen to Wangji and protect the children, that’s all I can ask.”
“I will,” said Wen Ning.
Jiang Cheng nodded and turned his attention to Wei Wuxian. “Get up,” he barked. “If you’re coming, it’s time to go, so get moving.” He didn’t watch to make sure his edict was obeyed, trusting Lan Wangji to nudge Wei Wuxian out of his doze, instead turning to help Wen Qing out of the boat and quickly check to make sure he had all that he needed.
By the time he and Wen Qing were on the dock, Wei Wuxian was bright-eyed and ready to leave as well.
“I’ll get Madam Jin and meet the two of you at the edge of the Serene Garden,” Jiang Cheng said. “Remember to put up your hoods.” He directed this mainly to Wei Wuxian as he was fairly certain that Wen Qing would be perfectly capable of remembering to disguise herself. “Don’t do anything stupid on the way.” This was directly to him.
“I wouldn’t,” Wei Wuxian said quietly. “It’s shijie. I have to see her again.”
Jiang Cheng didn’t reply. The three of them walked together for the first part of the way, Jiang Cheng splitting off without a word at the entrance to the grounds as he went to the front doors and the other two slid quietly around to the warren of the gardens.
Madam Jin was easily found and fetched by the disciples at the front entrance, though she seemed surprised to see Jiang Cheng.
“Given what you told me yesterday, I would have thought you’d be at Lotus Pier already,” she chided. She looked pointedly around them. “Leaving your nephew to his own devices?”
“He’s safe,” said Jiang Cheng. “But I learned something this morning that quite disturbed me, and I wanted your advice. Will you walk with me?”
Her eye sparkled. “Of course,” she said, and she seemed quite happy to have been consulted, slipping her hand onto his arm and letting him guide her along.
“I have discovered a person that has been kept on the grounds,” said Jiang Cheng as they walked. “I--”
But Madam Jin cut him off with a terrible scowl. “Her? The doctor?” The title was said with terrible sarcasm, and the amused pride had washed fully off her face.
Jiang Cheng, taken aback, said, “You knew about her? About everything, and you kept it from me?” He held her hand tightly on his arm when she might have slipped away, and kept walking. She was forced to come along, keeping pace with Jiang Cheng’s long strides by doubling her own steps.
“Is there anything my husband does that can be kept secret?” she asked bitterly as they walked. “I knew he had some woman installed here, besides his visits to the whores of the city, and although he tried to disguise it by calling her a doctor, I knew the truth.”
“The truth,” he echoed, feeling sick. “Then you will certainly want to help me take her away and solve your troubles, at least.”
“That wouldn’t even start to solve my troubles,” she said, still bitter. “All the men in my life are worthless, not one can be trusted to know what--” she broke off when two hooded figures loomed in front of them. “What is this?” She demanded.
“Our guides,” said Jiang Cheng. “Lead the way, please,” he directed the disguised Wen Qing, and she bowed slightly.
Madam Jin refrained from continuing her complaint in front of these unknown people, to Jiang Cheng’s relief, but her thunderous expression boded ill for him, he knew. He was not concerned; either she was mistaken about her knowledge and seeing his sister would melt her heart, or she was fully aware and her feelings as a hostage would no longer be a concern to him.
The small house that Wen Qing led them to was, indeed, guarded. Jiang Cheng pressed Madam Jin’s hand meaningfully, and she cleared her throat.
“When is the next change of guard due?” She asked one of the men.
“Hai hour,” he replied with a respectful nod.
“Open the door and leave,” she said. “We have private business here and that will be sufficient.” The men hesitated. “Now,” she barked, and they bowed hastily. One of them unlocked the door, and their small party watched as they walked stiffly away.
It was Wei Wuxian who opened the door for them. The room was small but much better lit and ventilated than Wen Qing’s little prison had been, though it carried the same general feeling of sickness in the air.
In this room, there was a table set up, medical instruments littering its surface, and a screen blocking the view of a bed. Wei Wuxian, still carefully hooded, moved the screen while Wen Qing, Jiang Cheng, and Madam Jin were still coming inside and closing the door behind them.
Jiang Yanli looked as though she was merely sleeping, her face peaceful and calm. The only sign of what she had endured was a large scar at her throat. Jiang Cheng let Madam Jin’s hand fall from his arm and took two steps forward so that he could fall to his knees at her bedside.
He didn’t remember, later, if he had said anything. It was several minutes before he was able to look up against the desperate wild hope that he had been trying so hard to suppress. Wei Wuxian was next to him, hood discarded and face wet.
When he looked behind himself, Wen Qing had also abandoned the hood, and was standing next to Madam Jin as if guarding her. But Madam Jin’s face was a revelation to Jiang Cheng. She hadn’t known, then, he knew. She had never been much of an actor, her emotions right at the surface, and she would not have been able to conceal this shock.
“You have to help us take her,” Jiang Cheng said, his voice raw. “I don’t know why she has been kept here, like this, for so long, but as long as she still lives, she must come to Lotus Pier.”
Madam Jin only nodded. “Yes,” she said. “May I--” she hesitated, then moved jerkily to Jiang Yanli’s bedside as well, caressing her hand gently. “Ah, my girl,” she said to her softly. “What have they done to you?”
Madam Jin looked around, seemingly for the first time since they had seen Jiang Yanli, and registered the presence of Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing for the first time. She gasped, pressing a hand to her heart, and grabbed Jiang Cheng’s shoulder as she swayed in place.
“My son,” she said frantically, turning to Jiang Cheng. “If you’re bringing people back to life, where is he, where is he?”
Jiang Cheng shook his head slowly. “It is not me returning them to life, only that their lives had been concealed,” he said, choosing to gloss over Wei Wuxian’s return to the living. “I’m sorry, Jin Zixuan’s death was too public for there to have been doubt or concealment.”
Her face crumpled, and she leaned her face against his chest, shoulders heaving with the grief of rising, then dashed, hopes.
He let her cry, tentatively patting her shoulder then letting his hand fall to his side again. “Can you prepare to move her?” he asked Wen Qing and Wei Wuxian quietly.
Wen Qing went to Jiang Yanli’s side, checking her over, while Wei Wuxian began to rustle through the small room for useful things, turning up an extra robe and blanket, and fidgeting with the implements on the table. Wen Qing took the robe and deftly began to dress her, and Jiang Cheng averted his eyes.
He attempted another pat on Madam Jin’s shoulder. She wrenched herself away and stared at him, hastily wiping her face with the back of one hand.
“I knew nothing of this,” she said. “I knew that there was a doctor on the grounds, a woman, and nothing else, I swear it.”
Jiang Cheng inclined his head in acknowledgement, and she kept going.
“My life here is one humiliation after another. I have been forced to stand by and watch my lech of a husband make a mockery of me, and I have watched as he installed that bastard in my home, and I know there are more waiting for their own chance, and I will not stay to watch it happen again.”
By the time she had reached the end of this speech, Jiang Cheng knew what she was going to say.
“Let me come with you to Lotus Pier,” she said. “It will protect you as well, if I am traveling with you.”
Jiang Cheng blew out a sharp breath. “Fine, but you have to come only with what you have right now,” he said. “We are taking Yanli and leaving. I won’t have you passing by Guangyao and tipping our hand.”
She looked alarmed, but firmed her mouth and nodded. “I’ll be fine,” she said.
Jiang Cheng looked to Wei Wuxian, who was hovering next to Jiang Yanli, and nodded. Wen Qing helped him pick her up, then tugged his hood forward, then replaced her own. She drew a corner of the blanket across Jiang Yanli’s face to partially disguise her, and led the way out the door.
As they left the palace grounds, they were not as lucky as they had been earlier that day; they came across other cultivators several times. Each time, Madam Jin only nodded and didn’t address them, and they only nodded back, eyes out on stalks at the sight of her accompanied by the Jiang sect leader and two hooded figures carrying what appeared to be a body. Jiang Cheng resolved to double up on speed talismans once they had reached the dock and set sail; if it were to be reported, he wanted to be on his home soil before Jin Guangshan or Jin Guangyao caught up to them.
Lan Wangji did not react visibly when they arrived accompanied by Madam Jin, but she seemed visibly surprised, and especially so when she caught sight of Wen Ning. She didn’t comment, however, and only settled herself delicately at one side of the boat, staying out of the way. Jiang Cheng devoted his attention to getting Jiang Yanli comfortably situated, then making sure they were all on board. He did a head count -- Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, sitting with Jin Ling and Wei Yuan and watching Wen Qing and Wen Ning, who were supporting Jiang Yanli and quietly talking medicine over her unconscious form. Madam Jin, stowed quietly.
He cast off the bow and stern lines, then guided the boat away from the dock. He couldn’t help but watch over his shoulder until they had gotten safely through the harbor traffic. Once he was able to place the speed talismans, he spent his time and energy piloting, rather than watching for pursuit. Traveling at double or triple speed was not for the faint of heart.
The trip, even halved, was not short. Lan Wangji had prepared a makeshift dinner from the provisions that Jiang Cheng had acquired that afternoon, and even Jiang Cheng was able to carefully eat while guiding the boat’s progress. The children, wide-eyed when they had returned to the boat with Jiang Yanli, had drifted into sleep by the time they arrived at Lotus Pier.
Jiang Cheng carefully lifted Jin Ling, and Wen Ning just beat Lan Wangji to Wei Yuan. Wei Wuxian had gathered up Jiang Yanli with Wen Qing’s watchful supervision. The rest were on their own power, though stumbling slightly sleepily in the chilly dark.
Lotus Pier never truly slept, and before they reached the main pavilion, they were met by the night guards, who bowed in welcome. Madam Jin, Wen Qing and Wen Ning were shown to guest rooms, though Wen Ning detoured to deposit Wei Yuan in his own room. Wen Qing insisted that Jiang Yanli be placed near her, which Jiang Cheng felt was only wise.
He frowned at Wei Wuxian. “I put Lan Wangji in your old room when he first came here,” he said. “You have to stay with him or find yourself somewhere else, I don’t care where. I have to put A-Ling to bed or he’ll be a demon tomorrow, get out of my sight.”
He didn’t bother to look for Wei Wuxian’s reaction. He’d find somewhere to sleep or he’d sleep up a tree and it was all the same to Jiang Cheng.
He put Jin Ling down onto his bed and watched his peaceful face for a long minute. “Maybe tomorrow you can meet your mother,” he whispered. “You’ll like her.”
Breakfast in the morning was tense. Nearly all of Jiang Cheng’s guests were early risers, and they were uneasy together, with sideways glances but no conversation. Madam Jin in particular stared openly; she seemed most discomfited by Lan Wangji’s presence, strangely enough, and watched him gently interact with Wei Yuan as though she’d never seen him before in her life.
Wei Wuxian stumbled in late, throwing himself down next to Lan Wangji, who had been lingering at his table even though Wei Yuan had long since excused himself to go to the training yard. From the way he immediately began to serve Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng guessed that he had been waiting for the chance.
Though he wanted to grab Wei Wuxian by the ear and drag him to Jiang Yanli’s room so that she could be awakened immediately, now, right this second, he restrained himself, allowing Wei Wuxian to eat and slowly return to true wakefulness; he remembered how useless Wei Wuxian was in the morning, after all.
Instead, he turned to Wen Qing. “Tell me more about the treatment you provided,” he said.
She looked up. “I strengthened her qi, to encourage it to keep circulating, and tended the wound in her throat. I've tried also to keep her muscles from going slack, so that if she was able to eventually awaken, she might not be too weak to move herself.”
Jiang Cheng nodded. “Thank you for your care and attention,” he said seriously. “Will you be present for her this morning?”
Wen Qing raised an eyebrow. “If I am permitted.”
He inclined his head and she smiled briefly in acknowledgement.
He turned and directed Jin Ling’s attendant to take him to play outside, in an inner courtyard, so that he should be close but not underfoot, and then there was nothing to do but wait for Wei Wuxian. Madam Jin excused herself to follow after Jin Ling, which he supposed was as good a place for her to spend the day as any. He glanced over, and he saw Wei Wuxian still leaning on Lan Wangji’s shoulder.
Jiang Cheng stood. “Please follow when you are ready,” he directed Wen Qing, and darted a look over to Lan Wangji's table as well. If he was going to sit and wait, he'd do it at jiejie’s bedside.
She was more beautiful than he'd remembered, he thought, kneeling next to her bed and gently putting his hand over hers. “Hello,” he said softly. “Your son is here, and he's wonderful. Just as stubborn as you but three times as loud. Every time he learns something new, I wished I could tell you about it; you'd be so proud.” He had to stop for a moment. “I missed you, jiejie,” he confessed quietly. He pressed his head to the bed next to their hands, and stayed there until he heard soft footfalls outside the door.
Wen Qing let herself into the room, followed by Wen Ning, and she didn’t immediately approach the bed, which allowed Jiang Cheng to compose himself. She didn’t seem to notice him at all, quietly directing her brother as she set the water to heat and started to arrange her needles and medicines, carefully unpacking the parcel they had obtained the day before.
“They didn’t summon me every day,” she said, not looking at Jiang Cheng. He wouldn’t even have been sure that she was talking to him, and not to her brother, if she hadn’t raised her voice slightly from the tone she had been using with him. “A few times a week, only. Less as time has gone on; I suppose they were losing hope that she would awaken. She’s been weakening. I think you’ve come in time,” she said when Jiang Cheng couldn’t stop a low, hurt gasp from escaping, and she finally looked toward him as she spoke. “She’s still circulating qi as strongly as last week when I was allowed to see her. But not too much longer, not months or years.”
Jiang Cheng tightened his grip on Jiang Yanli’s hand. “Is there anything we can do to help strengthen her will while you and Wei Wuxian attempt to awaken her?”
She smiled at him fleetingly before continuing with her work. “Speak with her, especially about her son. Be here with her as much as you can.”
It was no hardship to do so, and Jiang Cheng turned his attention back to his sister, squeezing her hand.
Wei Wuxian arrived soon after, looking bright-eyed and interested, as he always did before a challenge. He came first to Jiang Yanli and greeted her with a cheerful “Good morning, shijie!” before engaging Wen Qing in a discussion of her medical cultivation that Jiang Cheng didn’t follow. Lan Wangji had accompanied Wei Wuxian, of course, and he carried his guqin.
Jiang Cheng rose and ceded his chair, and Lan Wangji took it with aplomb. He began to play at once, a song of healing that Jiang Cheng recognized from the three-day vigil that Lan Wangji had sat for Wei Wuxian after the Sunshot campaign.
While Lan Wangji played, Wei Wuxian began to carefully place talismans alongside Jiang Yanli. He directed Wen Qing in the placement of a few more on her chest and stomach. Jiang Cheng watched as he activated them, Wen Qing watching with a sharp eye. There was no immediate effect, and he nodded at her.
The morning was long, and Jiang Cheng watched as Jiang Yanli slept through it, taking no notice, though her room was full. By lunchtime, she was nearly blanketed by talisman paper and Wei Wuxian was frowning.
“The flow of qi--” Wen Qing was saying, “if we could just get a similar --”
“Ah, yes, that might -- A-Cheng, come here and --” Wei Wuxian gestured to Jiang Cheng, who jumped a bit at suddenly being called to action.
“No,” insisted Wen Qing. “He won’t do, it won’t help--”
“Let’s just try,” said Wei Wuxian. “Here, Jiang Cheng, come and send a little spark of qi, I want to see if the relational--”
Jiang Cheng glanced at Wen Qing, who was frowning, and Wei Wuxian, who was looking hopeful as he chattered, and lifted Jiang Yanli’s wrist. He sent a tiny, careful tendril of qi, and her body absorbed it with no effect. He looked up at Wen Qing and Wei Wuxian curiously. “Was that what you expected?” he asked.
Wei Wuxian frowned. “I thought surely the sibling energy -- it helped Wen Ning so much to have you sending qi --”
“Well, they’re not siblings anymore, are they?” snapped Wen Qing at Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Cheng reared back as Wei Wuxian blanched as white as the sheets of the bed. Even Lan Wangji seemed taken aback, and she looked somewhat abashed. “Sorry, that came out wrong, of course you’re still siblings,” she apologized. “But the golden core operates at the absolute essence, most basic level, so of course it wouldn’t recognize--” She wheezed as Wei Wuxian thumped her indelicately on the shoulder, still pale, eyes wide.
Jiang Cheng didn’t know what to think. “Is my core damaged?” he asked, pressing a hand to the scar at his lower dantian and reaching for the familiar warmth within himself.
There was a knock on the door, and Jiang Cheng forced himself away from Wei Wuxian’s wide eyes and Wen Qing’s shifty ones to answer it.
“Guests, Jiang-zongzhu,” his first disciple said, looking extremely nervous, and Jiang Cheng frowned at her.
“I gave instructions --” he started, and she twisted her fingers and shook her head.
“It’s just that it’s Lan-zongzhu and Nie-zongzhu and they insisted very much that I tell you they were here,” she said, in a single breath.
Jiang Cheng closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Of course they are,” he said. “Thank you, you have acted correctly. You may go.”
She saluted and vanished. Jiang Cheng stepped back inside. “Your brother is here with Nie Mingjue,” he told Lan Wangji, who received the news with a slightly raised eyebrow. He looked at Wei Wuxian, who avoided his eyes, and Wen Qing, who met them, and reluctantly left them to their own devices.
It was not just Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen, he discovered, but also Nie Huaisang, with a faint air of guilt lingering around the edges of his glances. Jiang Cheng saluted the three of them, feeling grimly determined to bear up under whatever inquisition he was about to experience.
“We’ve come to help you in whatever way we can,” said Lan Xichen, and Jiang Cheng just stared at him. Lan Xichen’s smile was sympathetic, and Nie Mingjue looked neutral, which was practically a smile, for him.
Jiang Cheng looked from one to the other, suspicious now about what lies Nie Huaisang might have fed them, or what wild idea he might have gotten on his own. “Help with what?” he asked, guardedly.
“With your sister,” Lan Xichen said gently, and Jiang Cheng looked away. “Has she awakened?”
Jiang Cheng shook his head.
“Then please allow me to play for her, at least,” Lan Xichen urged.
“You might not find the company to your taste,” Jiang Cheng said, glancing at Nie Mingjue. “My sister was not the only person whose life the Jin clan concealed.”
“The Wens, you mean,” said Nie Mingjue.
Jiang Cheng nodded jerkily. “The Wens.” He didn’t feel particularly protective of them for themselves, but if Wen Qing, with her brother’s help, was able to help revive Jiang Yanli, he would defend them to the death. He scrutinized Nie Mingjue for his reaction, for some clue as to what he might be thinking.
Nie Mingjue’s face was unreadable, and he kept looking at Lan Xichen, who was smiling back each time. “As I have said,” he said finally. “Family is the most important thing. If they have kept and cared for your sister, of course you would wish for them to remain.” At the end of saying this, he shot another look at Lan Xichen, who gave him a soft smile, and nodded firmly back.
Whether his acceptance was forced or not, Jiang Cheng was grateful for it. “Come, then,” he said. “Perhaps you and Wangji playing together will wake her.” He turned to lead the way back to the sickroom.
Nie Huaisang’s steps behind him were quick, and he fell into step with Jiang Cheng. “I’m sorry, Jiang-xiong,” he hissed. “You know what da-ge is like, it’s like he can smell when I have news, he made me tell him.”
“You ran straight home and spilled the whole story before he poured you a cup of tea,” Jiang Cheng retorted. “You and your little ‘oh I’m so terrible at riding the saber, I had better go now’ routine.”
Nie Huaisang hid his face behind his fan, and Jiang Cheng was certain it was to hide a smile. He rolled his eyes and tapped on the door of the room where Jiang Yanli slept, and let himself and his new guests inside.
Little had changed in the few minutes that he’d been gone. Wei Wuxian had regained his face enough to continue working, and Wen Qing had shaken off her challenging mood, but Jiang Yanli lay still, and Lan Wangji continued to play the guqin in his corner. The notes faded as he rose to greet his brother.
“Please continue, Wangji,” said Lan Xichen. “I will join you.” He came inside, manifesting his xiao and tucking himself off to the side of a room that now seemed to be bursting at the seams.
“I won’t stay,” said Nie Mingjue, who had only looked inside from the doorway. “Wen-guniang, Wen-gongzi,” he said. “Wei-gongzi. I see you are all unexpectedly well.” He nodded at them as they gaped, and he stepped back into the hallway. “Huaisang, come with me to --” he looked inquiringly at Jiang Cheng.
“Blossom Pavilion is pleasant this time of year,” he said, and Nie Mingjue nodded decisively.
“To the Blossom Pavilion,” he finished. “We’ll wait there for the afternoon.” He towed Nie Huaisang away, ignoring his protests. Wen Qing, Wei Wuxian, and Wen Ning exchanged wide-eyed looks.
Jiang Cheng settled himself next to Jiang Yanli, leaving room for the others to work around him, and spent the afternoon alternating between meditation and simple contemplation. He was ragingly curious about whatever Wen Qing had alluded to regarding his golden core, but he was not willing to bring it up again in front of Lan Xichen.
Dinner was crowded that evening. Madam Jin sat next to Jin Ling, and Wen Ning sat next to Wei Yuan, his head bowed attentively to listen to him. Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing talked quietly, their heads together, continuing their discussion from the sickroom. Lan Wangji sat near them, listening without contributing, and if Jiang Cheng didn’t know better, he would have guessed that he’d been served vinegar instead of water. Lan Xichen was on his other side, joining him in observation of the Lan eating rules, but looking much more amused.
“Did you have a peaceful afternoon?” Jiang Cheng asked Nie Mingjue and Nie Huaisang, who had drifted in last of all.
Nie Huaisang nodded. “How was it with your sister?”
Jiang Cheng shook his head, reflexively. “She still hasn’t woken.” He glanced at Wen Qing and Wei Wuxian, then looked back. “Will you be staying?”
“We had hoped not just to offer assistance but also to discuss the broader implications,” said Nie Mingjue. “It’s a gift to see your sister alive but I am wondering why it is that she has been kept secret from not just her family but the wider cultivation world.”
“Wen Qing had indicated that experiments in demonic cultivation were performed,” said Jiang Cheng. “Perhaps to test the Stygian Tiger Seal, or to --”
“The what?” asked Nie Mingjue, leaning forward. “I thought it was destroyed?”
Jiang Cheng grimaced. “Only partially. And it was recreated.”
Nie Mingjue’s jaw was tightly clenched. “Do you know where it is? Who--” he looked at Wei Wuxian with narrowed eyes.
“No,” said Jiang Cheng. “That is --” he hesitated. “It’s been destroyed.” He caught Nie Huaisang’s eye but looked away quickly. “When we were attacked on our way to Gusu, we defeated the cultivator who wielded it against us, and it was destroyed in the process.”
“Who was the cultivator who wielded it?” asked Nie Mingjue.
“How was it destroyed?” asked Nie Huaisang, neatly laying down his chopsticks and looking slyly at Jiang Cheng.
“He gave his name as Xue Yang,” Jiang Cheng said, ignoring the second question entirely. “He looked familiar to me, but I would not have said that I knew him. He did not claim a sect but he implied he had a powerful patron or protector who had recruited him to cultivation.”
Nie Mingjue shook his head slowly. “It does seem like a strong coincidence, that a demonic cultivator should attack you with a powerful device at the same time that your sister was being held in secret.”
“There are no coincidences,” said Jiang Cheng sourly. He looked at Madam Jin, who was gingerly dabbing at her robes where Jin Ling had spilled the remains of his dinner, and who did not appear to be listening to their quiet discussion, but he leaned back and declined to speak further. She had chosen to leave Koi Tower with them, but he was still not certain that she could be trusted fully, if the evidence against her sect was too damning. Nie Mingjue took the cue from him and the discussion ended.
Before Jin Ling’s attendant could sweep him away to bed, Jiang Cheng intervened. “I’ll put him to bed,” he said, dismissing her. “A-Yuan, you come with us as well.” The other adults in the room remained, most still talking quietly, though Madam Jin excused herself to bed at the same time.
He took the two boys to Jiang Yanli’s bedside. They had seen her on their mad flight from Koi Tower, of course, and they had been present for the discussions about her, but Jiang Cheng had not yet taken the time to be sure that they understood who she was and how important she was.
“A-Ling, this is your mother,” he said. “She has been asleep like this since you were a very small baby.” Jin Ling looked at her, eyes wide, then back at Jiang Cheng. He took Wei Yuan’s hand and held it tightly. Wei Yuan patted his hand with his free one and looked between Jin Ling and Jiang Yanli.
“Jiejie, A-Ling is here,” Jiang Cheng told her. “You need to wake up soon and see him.”
On the bed, Jiang Yanli moved. Just a breath, louder than before, and a line appearing between her brows where before her skin had been smooth and relaxed, but it was more than he had yet seen from her.
“Fetch Wen Qing,” he told Wei Yuan. “Quickly now.” Wei Yuan carefully let Jin Ling’s hand go and rushed out the door. Jiang Cheng took Jin Ling’s hand and together they watched Jiang Yanli for any other reaction.
When Wen Qing arrived, slightly out of breath, Jiang Yanli’s slight frown had returned to the unnerving placid calm of before, and her breaths were quiet once more. Wen Qing leaned close to examine her.
“Tell me what you saw,” she said, not looking up.
“When I told her that Jin Ling was here to see her, she stirred,” Jiang Cheng said, feeling slightly foolish, as though he’d overreacted, but Wen Qing beamed at him.
“There you go, I should have thought of that,” she said. “You’ve done more to wake her than anyone yet. Keep talking about him, allow him to stay if he wants, tell her he needs him.” She leaned over Jiang Yanli and spoke loudly. “Do you hear that, Yanli-jie? Your son needs you, you have to wake up right now.”
This time, Jiang Yanli’s next breath was closer to a low moan. Wen Qing looked up, satisfaction on her face. “That’s got her,” she said. She looked at Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling, and her mouth twisted a bit. “Maybe you should go off to bed.”
Jiang Cheng looked down at Jin Ling, who was crying quietly into his sleeve. He picked him up, pulling him close. “Bedtime, A-Ling,” he said. “We’ll come see a-niang in the morning.” He turned to Wen Qing. “Will you sleep in here again?”
She nodded, and he left to put Jin Ling to bed. If he sat with Jin Ling for long minutes after the boy had fallen asleep, who was to see him? Who was to say anything about it?
When Jin Ling slept, he looked very much like his mother.
Jiang Cheng woke in the night to shouts and the sound of running feet. He didn’t bother to dress, only grabbed Sandu, Zidian still in place on his hand, and ran. His feet directed him first to the room Jiang Yanli was occupying, and the shouting grew louder as he approached. He couldn’t distinguish any words, but whoever was yelling certainly had some strongly held feelings.
When Jiang Cheng skidded into the room, it was already full to bursting. In the center, hair loose, shrieking at the top of her lungs, was Wen Qing. There was a man on the floor, lying still and faintly groaning, held in place by Wen Ning, and both Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji had preceded Jiang Cheng by only moments, and behind him he heard Lan Xichen’s footfalls. Jiang Yanli was the only person in the room not exclaiming or shouting; she lay still yet.
“What is going on?” Jiang Cheng snapped, and Wen Qing turned to face him.
“This -- this wretch, this scoundrel!” She was panting from the force of her indignation. “He was leaning over her bed! In the night! Ready to do her some harm!”
The man on the floor gave a low groan of protest.
“Is she okay?” asked Wei Wuxian, who was closest to Jiang Yanli, and bent over her to worriedly check her over.
Jiang Cheng went to the man on the floor, and pulled back his hood, exposing his face.
Familiar, but the name escaped him. He sat back on his heels, frowning. “Who are you?” Wei Wuxian looked over as well, then looked at Jiang Cheng and shrugged.
The man turned his head, refusing to speak, and Lan Wangji volunteered the information instead. “This is Su She,” he said. “Although why he should be here, I cannot imagine.”
The man lifted his head to glare at Lan Wangji. “I came to check on the young mistress,” he said. “She was taken from her caring family and stolen in the night.” His voice was thin because of the fierce corpse on his chest pinning him to the floor, but he managed to sound stubbornly self-righteous nevertheless.
“Stolen!” said Jiang Cheng, outraged. “We are her family! This is her home!”
“Koi Tower is her home,” Su She retorted.
“You aren’t even a member of the Jin sect.” Jiang Cheng frowned, trying to remember. “Weren’t you trying to start your own sect somewhere?”
“Moling,” supplied Lan Xichen, from the doorway. Jiang Cheng exchanged a glance with Lan Wangji.
“How did you even get in here?” he asked. Su She turned his face away. Jiang Cheng looked up at Wen Qing. “What happened, exactly?”
“I woke up and he was leaning over the bed,” she said. “I thought it was one of you at first, but then I saw the hood over his face and I exclaimed.” Exclaimed was putting it mildly, Jiang Cheng thought, but he wouldn’t dare to complain about her protectiveness for his sister.
“I heard her shout and came inside,” Wen Ning contributed. “However he got inside, it was not through the door past me.” He eased back slightly as Wen Qing leaned down and casually stuck a needle into Su She’s neck.
Su She slumped where he lay, and Wen Qing rose back up. “That should keep him,” she said. “May we continue this in the morning?” She wrapped her sleep robe more tightly and Jiang Cheng abruptly shifted his gaze away. Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen went so far as to fully turn their backs, and Wei Wuxian, who Jiang Cheng could clearly see now, winked at her.
Without thinking, Jiang Cheng flicked him in the forehead. Wei Wuxian winced and cried out in playful hurt, and Jiang Cheng scowled. “Go to bed,” he said.
“Jiang-zongzhu, can you find a place to hold him until morning, when we can question him further?” Wen Qing asked. “I have faith in my paralytics but it’s unsettling to have him here.” Wen Ning hauled Su She’s unresisting body up and over his shoulder, looking expectantly at Jiang Cheng for direction.
Jiang Cheng cleared his throat. “Of course,” he said. “We can guard the room as well.” He glanced at Lan Xichen, who moved back, out of the doorway, and Jiang Cheng led Wen Ning to a small room, generally used for storage or for receiving annoying leaders of small sects, although typically when he did so, they were conscious.
He left Wen Ning there with him, and returned to guard the door of Jiang Yanli’s room himself; he certainly wouldn’t be sleeping anymore that night anyway, he might as well.
In the morning, Su She had woken, but was no more communicative. Nie Mingjue, whose rooms had been too far to have heard the commotion the night before, and Nie Huaisang, who had certainly slept through any shouting, joined in the questioning. Even Madam Jin, at her most imperious, could inspire nothing from him.
“We may have to let him go,” said Lan Xichen at lunch, and Jiang Cheng scowled.
“He came in the middle of the night and snuck somehow into ladies’ quarters. He may have been stopped before he could do any mischief, but that doesn’t mean he should simply be excused and allowed to walk out.”
Lan Xichen bowed his head, acknowledging the point.
“Perhaps he’ll feel more like talking after a few days in there by himself,” Wei Wuxian suggested.
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “Just because you go crazy after a day of nobody talking to you, it doesn’t mean that it’ll work on him.” He frowned, considering. “But it’s not the worst idea. I’m tired of looking at his face, anyway, and it’s distracting us from more important matters. Fine, but I’m not wasting Wen Ning’s time by guarding him at every moment.”
Jiang Cheng locked the door, and Wei Wuxian sealed it with a talisman, but by dinnertime, Su She had vanished.
Also by dinnertime, Jiang Yanli’s sleep had become markedly restless, and Jiang Cheng found that far more pressing of a concern. “She’ll be awake soon,” predicted Wen Qing, and Jiang Cheng could not tear himself away from her bedside.
Jin Ling stuck close by his side, alternating between watching Jiang Yanli with a quiet longing and playing with the little tools and devices on the small table near her bed, that Jiang Cheng suspected Wen Qing or Wen Ning of placing there for that express purpose, though they always seemed to be looking away when Jiang Cheng glanced between them.
Wei Yuan, also, haunted the room, though he seemed more interested in talking to the new, and awake, family members that he had discovered. Wen Ning was happy to be prompted to tell stories of their family and Wei Yuan’s babyhood, and Jiang Cheng tried to listen along, but each time that he focused on the sound of Wen Ning’s voice, Jiang Yanli would toss on the bed, or moan, and he leaned forward, watching intently for her eyes to flicker and open.
The music from Lan Wangji’s guqin washed over them, each note trembling with spiritual energy, and Jiang Cheng did his best to ignore Wei Wuxian, sitting vigilant on the other side of Jin Ling.
Jin Ling yawned hugely and slumped sleepily against Jiang Cheng’s side, and he gathered him into his lap, head bent for just a moment, and so of course it was at that time that Jiang Yanli opened her eyes, and Wei Wuxian who noticed first.
“Shijie,” he breathed, and Jiang Cheng jerked his attention up from the toddler on the edge of sleep in his lap to see her blinking up at the ceiling, awake.
“Jiejie,” he said, and leaned forward to touch her hand, holding Jin Ling fast.
She turned her head and looked at them, and Jiang Cheng could have wept to see his sister, awake and alive after these long years of living while he thought she was dead. She smiled vaguely at them and her lips formed a word, but no sound emerged. Her forehead creased in a gentle frown, and she tried again, but again there was not even a breath behind her words.
Wen Qing elbowed Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian out of the way. “Good evening, Yanli,” she said, briskly but kindly. “Are you in any pain?”
Jiang Yanli shook her head slightly, but her hand came up to brush her throat, where the thick scar from her injury had healed into a wide white line.
“Are you trying to speak?” Wen Qing asked, and Jiang Yanli nodded, and her mouth moved once more. Jiang Cheng watched her form again the round shapes of the word she had tried three times to say.
“Are you asking about A-Ling?” he asked, and Jiang Yanli’s eyes lit up. She nodded eagerly, and she gestured with her hands. Jiang Cheng stood up, Jin Ling asleep in his arms, and brought him close, but Jiang Yanli’s reaction was alarm, not joy. She shook her hands in negation, then brought her arms together in a small circle, rocking slightly.
Jiang Cheng stopped, stymied. Jiang Yanli had wanted to see Jin Ling, or to hold him, but was he wrong in some way, he wondered. She didn’t want him after all, or that wasn’t what she had meant?
Lan Wangji had stopped playing, and he and Wei Wuxian were watching Jiang Yanli as closely as Jiang Cheng had been. “Perhaps she is expecting him to be as small as when she last saw him,” he suggested. “Wen-guniang, can we explain to her how much time has passed since she last was awake?”
“This is Jin Ling,” said Jiang Cheng directly to his sister, showing Jin Ling as clearly as he could without waking him. “He’s three now, jiejie, not a baby.”
Jiang Yanli shook her head in sharp negation, then turned her face away. Her body shook with sobs, soundlessly wracked.
“Perhaps you should take him to bed,” suggested Wen Qing quietly.
Jiang Cheng stood there for a long moment, watching his sister grieve for her son’s lost babyhood, before nodding jerkily. “You might as well go to bed too,” he said to Wei Yuan. “Come on.”
Once Jin Ling and Wei Yuan had been safely delivered to their beds, Jiang Cheng hovered in the hallway for a long minute, indecisive.
Finally, he went to his room, alone, to spend a long, restless night trying, and failing, to sleep.
The morning brought little peace. Jiang Cheng was reluctant to bring Jin Ling back into Jiang Yanli’s room without assurance that she would be happy to see him, and Jin Ling himself was restlessly refusing to go to or talk with anyone else, as if he had subconsciously understood his mother’s uncharacteristic and unexpected rejection of himself the night before. He even crawled into Jiang Cheng’s lap at breakfast, which was a habit Jiang Cheng deplored and hoped he had outgrown long since.
Instead of putting him to the side so that they could both eat comfortably, he tucked a protective arm around his back and allowed Jin Ling to finish his breakfast. He wasn’t hungry, anyway.
Neither Wei Wuxian nor Lan Wangji was at breakfast, he noticed. Lan Wangji had probably broken his fast much earlier than Jiang Cheng had risen, and Wei Wuxian might still be sleeping, or he might have spent the night sleeplessly at Jiang Yanli’s bedside, he supposed. Either was likely, and he never knew what Wei Wuxian might do. Neither of the Nie brothers, nor Lan Xichen, were there either. Had they left? He wracked his brain for any memory of a decision having been made the previous day, whether they would go or stay, and came up blank. What a host he was, he thought viciously. Guests everywhere and none of them had been attended to.
Madam Jin swept in, interrupting his self-recrimination, and seated herself nearby. “How is Yanli?” she asked. “It has been so hard to find space at her bedside, but I would like to see her soon if I might.”
“She woke briefly last night,” he said, and Madam Jin stared at him.
“Well!” she said. “I should certainly like to see her, then! Has she seen A-Ling yet?”
Jiang Cheng reflexively drew Jin Ling a little closer. “I don’t think she realized how long she had been asleep,” he said carefully. “She was expecting to see a small baby, I think.” He rested his chin for a moment on Jin Ling’s head in brief illustration. “Not this tall lad.”
Madam Jin’s eye’s lit up with understanding, and Jiang Cheng looked away. “Let me have a quick bite and we’ll go to see her again this morning,” she said briskly. “I’m sure she’ll feel better this morning, and this one needs to see his mother awake at last.”
Jiang Cheng nodded and let Jin Ling continue playing with his spoon as Madam Jin quickly served herself. No one else joined them for breakfast in the brief minutes before she was ready to leave, and he wondered again if his guests had tired of entertaining themselves and departed.
When they arrived at Jiang Yanli’s room, he did not need to wonder further. Jiang Yanli was propped up in her bed, looking around herself with wide, sparkling eyes, and every other guest had managed to squeeze inside and were trying to capture her attention. Wei Wuxian was closest to her, of course, but Nie Huaisang’s voice was piercing. Wen Qing was trying to shush them, with little effect. It was a surprisingly merry group for such an early hour.
“What is this?” Jiang Cheng said from the door, frowning. “Jiejie, are you throwing a party?” Madam Jin had paused in the hallway, as indeed there was no room for her to enter the room at all.
Jiang Yanli spread her hands in mock helplessness, smiling, then stretched them out to him, motioning with her fingers. She mouthed the same word as the night before, but now she seemed determined and aware, and Jiang Cheng brought Jin Ling near with no fear.
She traced his cheek with a soft finger in wonder, and Jin Ling, in a sudden fit of shyness, buried his face into Jiang Cheng’s chest. Jiang Yanli’s smile was tremulous, and Jiang Cheng sat on the side of her bed. “Give a-niang a smile, A-Ling,” he coaxed, and Jin Ling poked his face back out hesitantly.
The tears were pouring down Jiang Yanli’s face when she held out her arms, though silently, and Jin Ling allowed her to take him onto her lap, though he still looked quite shy. The room was quiet, now, and Jiang Cheng almost couldn’t bear to watch as her hand, trembling, stroked her son’s hair.
Instead, he turned away to glare down the rest of the various guests, family members, and assorted hangers-on. “This isn’t a party, why are you here? Get out.”
Nie Huaisang was the first to fold, slinking out of the room without a backward glance. Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue, who had been mostly talking to each other, rather than at Jiang Yanli, bowed politely before departing. Wen Qing and Wen Ning, who had been talking quietly over the medical table, drifted out. Jiang Cheng inclined his head in a nod as they left, and Wen Qing raised an eyebrow at him.
That left Lan Wangji, looking uncomfortable, Wei Wuxian, looking stubborn, and Wei Yuan, looking confused. Jiang Cheng glowered at Wei Yuan. “You might as well be useful, fetch a seat for Madam Jin,” he said, and Wei Yuan’s face cleared as he jumped to obey. Jiang Cheng ignored the other two; they could go or stay, he did not care.
When Madam Jin had entered and seated herself, Jiang Yanli had looked up from Jin Ling, though she still clutched him tightly, and her tears had not stopped. He was clinging to her as well, his face buried in her soft robes. She bowed as best she could from the bed, and Madam Jin saluted back with the gentle smile that only Jiang Yanli ever received from her.
“I’m so glad to see you, my daughter,” she said. “We have missed you. Your brother has raised your son well, but there is nothing that can replace a mother.”
Jiang Yanli looked at Wei Wuxian, then at Jiang Cheng. Brother? she mouthed.
Wei Wuxian smiled weakly at her. “I’ve been dead, shijie,” he said.. “A-Cheng’s been raising both our sons.” He indicated Wei Yuan, who was still standing a little behind Lan Wangji, where he’d retreated after fetching the seat. “Look how tall they both are, can you believe the nerve of these little ones? Getting so big without our permission!”
“You both left me here alone,” said Jiang Cheng. “What else was I supposed to do?” He crossed his arms and looked away. “They’re good boys.”
“Of course they are,” said Madam Jin smoothly. She turned back to Jiang Yanli. “It must have been such a surprise to wake after so much time had passed. Do you remember anything at all while you slept?”
Jiang Yanli, her eyes filled with fresh tears but a smile on her lips, shook her head.
“It seems my husband and his….young person have kept you a bit of a secret,” she said. “None of us knew that you yet lived; for us it was as though you died on the battlefield.” Madam Jin did not acknowledge the tears flowing down her cheeks, even to swipe at them. “Now that I know you are awake and alive, my dear, I promise you that Koi Tower will change.”
Jiang Yanli pressed her lips together and shook her head vehemently. She patted her bed and pointed to the floor.
“You want to stay here?” Madam Jin guessed, and Jiang Yanli nodded. Madam Jin sighed. “Well, please think about bringing that boy up to see me a few times each year, at least, once I’ve cleared house. He’s still the heir.”
Jiang Yanli leaned forward as best she could and pressed Madam Jin’s hand, her smile tremulous.
“You’re welcome, my dear,” she said. “I’ll stay a few more days, if that’s acceptable, but then I really must go back.”
“You’re very welcome to remain,” said Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Yanli nodded, then reached up to gently wipe a tear from Madam Jin’s cheek.
“Oh, forgive a silly woman some sentiment,” Madam Jin said. “Now then, Yanli, let me tell you some stories about A-Ling that will curl your hair.” She settled in for a visit, and Jiang Yanli gave her her full attention.
Jiang Cheng looked at Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian; this time, a raised eyebrow was enough to roust them from the room, and he and Wei Yuan followed, leaving Madam Jin and Jiang Yanli to catch up over Jin Ling’s head.
Wen Qing was loitering in the hallway -- nothing so inelegant as hovering, but definitely waiting to be permitted back into the sickroom. Instead, Jiang Cheng sketched a bow and said, “Will you come with me?”
Her expression showed that she was perplexed by the request, but she saluted back and fell into step with him. He sensed, rather than saw, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian peeling away from them, with Wei Yuan accompanying them. To the training grounds, he hoped, but he was willing to look the other way for a few days if not.
“Several days ago, Nie Mingjue nearly fell into a qi deviation,” Jiang Cheng told Wen Qing quietly, once the others were out of earshot.
She cocked her head to the side. “Was he training saber?” she asked.
Jiang Cheng raised his eyebrows. “Yes, I believe so,” he said.
Wen Qing huffed a sigh. “It’s a form of demonic cultivation, you know,” she said quietly. “They use the energy from the spirits they’ve killed; it’s not far off from using the energy of the restless dead. It’s not good for him.”
“Can you help?” asked Jiang Cheng. “Your position is tricky, politically, and while Lotus Pier will shelter you unconditionally due to the service you’ve shown to my sister, perhaps it might be well to demonstrate what a waste it would be to have you killed.” He didn’t look at her at all during this speech, knowing its pragmatism might offend.
Unexpectedly, she said, “Thank you.” Her tone was cool but unoffended. Jiang Cheng dared a glance down and her head was held high, her back straight, the picture of determination.
Not knowing where his guests had gone after being unceremoniously thrown from his presence, he steered them to the pavilion in which Nie Mingjue had spent the day previously, and he was rewarded for his guess. Lan Xichen and both Nie brothers were there.
Lan Xichen and Nie Huaisang both had their flutes out, and Lan Xichen seemed to be teaching Nie Huaisang some piece of music, but they stowed their flutes as Jiang Cheng and Wen Qing approached.
Wen Qing bowed. “Nie-zongzhu, will you permit this humble doctor to approach?”
Nie Mingjue studied her warily for a long, tense minute, but waved his hand in assent at last. “I’ve seen doctors,” he said. “Do you think I haven’t?”
“How many cases of demonic cultivation had they treated?” she asked, almost absently, as she took up his arm to begin her examination.
Nie Mingjue made a startled and offended huff. “Demonic cultivation?” He started to pull away but she patted his arm and he subsided. Nie Huaisang looked impressed.
“It’s very similar,” she said, her head bent. “Yes, you have the distinctive signs. It’s not quite like Wen Ruohan, though. More like Wei Wuxian, after he had lost his core. The energy signature is--”
“After Wei Wuxian had what?” Jiang Cheng cut in.
Wen Qing lifted her head and looked around. “After he lost his--oh--” And she swore worse than Jiang Cheng had heard from anyone since the war, when she saw four sets of wide eyes and astonished faces looking at her.
“When Wei Wuxian returned, he was surprised to find that his core was intact,” Jiang Cheng said slowly.
“Yes, I imagine that he would have been,” said Wen Qing. She tried to return attention to Nie Mingjue. “Now, if you could please--”
Jiang Cheng turned to face the water, ignoring Wen Qing’s attempts to move past her slip and treat her stubborn new patient. He thought back to all the times in the past that Wei Wuxian had refused to help him, all the times that he had refused to carry his sword. Jiang Cheng gripped the railing and fought back a wave of sickness at the sudden realization.
A second, lagging, realization came to him as well. He lifted his head and spoke without turning. “How did he lose it?”
Wen Qing’s questioning voice trailed off, but she didn’t reply. Jiang Cheng turned to face her and asked again, louder. “How did he lose it?”
She looked aside, uncharacteristically reticent. “It’s not for me to say,” she said quietly. “I should not have mentioned it to begin with.”
Jiang Cheng felt rage surge within himself, and turned to go. Wei Wuxian couldn’t tell him himself before, but he damn well would now or --
But Lan Xichen stepped in front of him before he could leave the pavilion. “Before you go, Jiang-zongzhu,” he said apologetically.
“What,” said Jiang Cheng, more a breath than a question.
“We have agreed between us that our sworn brother has done harm to your family, and likely to others, and he may have attempted, in some way, to harm da-ge.” The flutter of Nie Huaisang’s fan caught Jiang Cheng’s eyes, and he saw Nie Huaisang roll his eyes as he mouthed ‘may have.’
Lan Xichen ignored him and went on. “We have decided to take Jin Guangyao to Cloud Recesses, to live in seclusion and remove from him the opportunity to continue in his misdeeds. Will you approve these actions? The harm to your family has been great.”
“Do whatever you want to him,” gritted out Jiang Cheng. “Don’t let him talk you around with his pretty dimples the way he did last time.” Lan Xichen flushed, wrong-footed, and Nie Huaisang choked back a laugh.
“Da-ge and I will be there as well,” said Nie Huaisang when Lan Xichen seemed unable to come up with a reply. “We’re immune to dimples.”
Jiang Cheng sent him an ironic glance, and Nie Huaisang covered his face with his fan, only his laughing eyes showing.
“Will you leave today?” Jiang Cheng asked, still itching to track down Wei Wuxian and beat some answers out of him.
“As soon as possible, now that we have spoken with you,” said Lan Xichen.
“Then I will say farewell now, and thank you,” Jiang Cheng said, almost automatically. “If you could retrieve Wei Wuxian’s sword while you are there, now that he can wield it again,” he gritted his teeth until he was able to continue, “I would appreciate that very much.” Lan Xichen inclined his head.
He bowed and departed from the pavilion without further ceremony, leaving the men to their own devices, and Wen Qing to her examination.
Wei Wuxian was not on the training grounds, as it happened, although Wei Yuan was. Jiang Cheng spared a wave to him and continued on his search. He was luckier on his second guess.
At some point in the morning Madam Jin had departed from Jiang Yanli’s bedside, and Wei Wuxian was now kneeling there, his head lying in her lap as she gently patted his hair. “--even more handsome, it’s terrible,” he was saying.
“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng said, as calmly as he was able. “Why didn’t you tell us that you lost your golden core?”
Jiang Yanli’s hand stilled, and Wei Wuxian stopped talking but didn’t raise his head. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said, voice bright. “Didn’t you see my cultivation? Didn’t I show you --”
“Before you died. You know what I mean,” Jiang Cheng said. His voice sounded raw even to himself. “Was it when they threw you in the Burial Mounds? Did I take away your only chance of recovering your core when I went to Baoshan Sanren?”
“I didn’t mind,” said Wei Wuxian, still looking away. “It should be you, if only one of us were to have a golden core, anyway, so you could lead the sect.” He sat up, finally, his voice turning cheerful. “And now I’m alive again, and I have it back. And we both have shijie,” he added, turning to Jiang Yanli.
Jiang Cheng thought that he would find in her no solace. Her face was full of sorrow, still. Like Wei Wuxian, her memories of the war and its aftermath were clear and fresh, without three years of grief and work and child-rearing to begin to soften the edges. She remembered well the torments that Wei Wuxian had suffered, the barbs and admonishments and slights. Jiang Cheng shared a long look with her and wordlessly shared a promise. Never again.
Biting back his bitter regret, he drew closer, and joined Wei Wuxian in kneeling. Jiang Yanli sat further up in bed, and they shared a three-way hug the way they had not done since before Jiang Yanli’s wedding. Jiang Cheng just breathed, not willing to draw away until one of the others did.
It was Wei Wuxian who broke the moment at last, though accidentally; his stomach grumbled, very audibly, and the three of them drew back, nearly giggling. “Are you feeling up to making some soup, shijie?” Wei Wuxian asked, teasing, and Jiang Yanli nodded emphatically, motioning as though she would draw back the covers. “Ah, no, no, I’m teasing!” he said. “Rest!”
But Jiang Yanli stubbornly motioned for them to step away, and she rose unsteadily from the bed. She teetered and nearly fell after her second step, though, and Jiang Cheng caught her and helped her to sit. “Slowly, jiejie,” he said. “Be kind to yourself and rest.”
She smiled and tapped his nose meaningfully.
Soup was brought there for their lunch, and Wei Wuxian loudly proclaimed it to be far inadequate compared to Jiang Yanli’s, and she smiled widely at both of them as they ate together.
“I suppose you had better go and see my head disciple,” said Jiang Cheng off-handedly to Wei Wuxian as they were finishing their meal. “I had to strike your name from the rolls after our fight in Yiling, he can properly add you back.” He glanced over, and Wei Wuxian was watching him, mouth open. He frowned. “Unless you don’t want to?”
“No, I do, I do,” Wei Wuxian said, almost before he finished. “Thank you, zongzhu.”
“Shut up,” said Jiang Cheng, and swiped at his head, which he avoided with a duck and a laugh.
That evening, Jiang Yanli was feeling strong enough to be carried to the main hall for dinner by a meekly helpful Wen Ning, who could barely meet her gaze, though she seemed to bear him no lingering ill-will in the part he’d played in her husband’s death.
For the first time in longer than Jiang Cheng could remember, it felt truly like a family dinner. Even Madam Jin seemed to feel it, speaking casually with them and laughing more than Jiang Cheng remembered her doing any time before.
Partway through the meal, Jiang Cheng recalled a question that had been whispering in the back of his mind ever since Wei Wuxian had returned to life.
“Will you be remaining at Lotus Pier?” he asked Lan Wangji.
“That remains to be seen,” he said. He darted a look at Wei Wuxian, who was looking down at his plate.
Outraged, Jiang Cheng said, “Wei Wuxian, have you been toying with Lan-xiong’s affections? Why haven’t you asked him to stay with you yet? What are you waiting for?”
Wei Wuxian’s head shot up. “I thought that you--” His eyes were wide. He looked between Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng. “That the two of you were --”
Before Jiang Cheng could react, absolutely staggered at this assumption, Lan Wangji threw his head back and laughed.
Two weeks later, Jiang Cheng was sitting with Jiang Yanli in a courtyard, Jin Ling playing at her feet. She had walked there herself, as every day her strength returned, though her voice had not yet. Wen Qing had shrugged over it; it would return in time, perhaps, she thought. She nonetheless managed to make herself well understood, if not in words.
“I have letters, jiejie,” said Jiang Cheng. “Would you like to hear the news?”
She nodded, her head cocked attentively.
“The first is from Madam Jin. It appears that Jin-zongzhu has suffered an unfortunate and embarrassing accident, and passed away. How tragic and sudden,” he said, putting the letter down and looking over at her, face exaggeratedly solemn. She twinkled back at him and he let the mask dissolve into a smile. “And so Madam Jin, that brave widow, has taken control of the sect, and wishes to discuss the topic of the towers in a more equitable way once the worst of her mourning is complete. Delightful.”
Jiang Yanli nodded in agreement, and solemnly accepted the toy that Jin Ling handed her, exchanging it for another she held in her lap, before turning back to listen.
“Next is Wei Wuxian, who writes from Gusu,” Jiang Cheng went on, looking at the next of his messages. “He has reclaimed Suibian and he and Lan Wangji plan to tackle that problem on the northern borders. He hopes that you, Jin Ling, and Wei Yuan are all well. He says that he might try to invent some kind of device for transmuting thoughts to words so that you might communicate more easily.” He looked up again. “Please write to him and dissuade him, that sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.”
“Third and final letter is--” he paused, despite himself. “Wen Qing, from the Unclean Realms.” He avoided his sister’s knowing gaze. “She says that she has done what she can to cleanse Nie Mingjue’s spirit in order to avert his qi deviation, and taught Nie Huaisang all that she can as well, and wishes to return to Lotus Pier if it is convenient to us.” His eyes lingered on the closing of the message despite himself, before he could force himself to look up. Jiang Yanli’s sparkling eyes met his reluctant gaze. She raised a single eyebrow.
“Hush, you,” he said, and leaned back in his seat, allowing out the smile that wanted to dance in the corners of his mouth. They watched Jin Ling in silence until Wei Yuan dashed by and swept him away for some rowdy game. Things could be worse, he thought.